Category Archives: human enhancement

All about gene editing, sexual reproduction, and the arts (an October 27, 2018 ArtSci Salon event in Toronto, Canada)

This ArtSci Salon event is part of the third world congress, GeNeDis (Genetics, Geriatrics, and Neurodegenerative Diseases Research). GeNeDis 2018 was organized by The Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Human Electrophysiology, Department of Informatics of the Ionian University (Corfu Greece) in cooperation with the Fields Institute (for Research in Mathematical Sciences) at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) and Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo Ontario).

The ArtSci Salon will be presenting (from the ArtSci Salon GeNeDis event page) Note: Read carefully as this is a multi-pronged event,

GeNeDis Panel and Exhibition – Gene Editing, sexual reproduction and the arts: Oct 27, 2018

ArtSci salon is proud to present an event to explore the entangled issues of sex and sexual fantasy, sexual reproduction and sexual regulation, fertility and sexual technologies. We invited artists and scholars to address these themes using their preferred approach: the result is a thought provoking series which interrogates and imagines these issues through human/non-human sexual fantasies, interrogates them by means of modified gynaecological instruments, rewrites potential scenarios as enhanced and/or elderly humans, or offers unexpected ways to hack sex right here, right now.

Our goal is not just to imagine how media, technological enhancement, gene editing and medical treatments will transform our idea of sex and our sexuality as human beings and as part of the wide non-human world that surrounds us. It is also to think of how creative/critical initiatives may facilitate a sustained dialogue to help us cope with unresolved issues in the present. Interdisciplinary so!

The event will be accompanied by an exhibition on display Oct 18-Nov.8 in the Koffler Students Centre Cabinets, University of Toronto

Panel discussion

Gene editing, sexual reproduction and the arts: the present, the future and the imagined

ArtSci Salon will participate in the scientific conference GeNeDis (Genetics, Geriatrics, and Neurodegenerative Diseases Research) with a special panel addressing the topic of gene editing and sexual reproduction from a sciart perspective. The discussion will be preceded by the official opening of an exhibition illustrating how present issues in gynaecology and sexual regulation, hormonal management, human enhancement and sexual and cultural identity may be addressed, redressed, hacked and reimagined through the arts.

The Panel will be followed by a reception

Chair: Roberta Buiani, ArtSci Salon, Fields Institute
Speakers: Byron Rich, Samira Daneshvar, Adam Zaretsky & Dolores Steinman.

Saturday, Oct 27,
18:00-19:30

Lennox Hall
77 Adelaide Street W.

please, RSVP here 

For a little more detail about the event, you can check an Oct. 19, 2018 news item in Clot magazine,

On October 27th [2018], interdisciplinary group ArtSci Salon will present a panel discussion addressing the topic of gene editing and sexual reproduction from a sciart perspective. Preceding the discussion will be the official opening of an exhibition featuring the work of four of the speakers; a show that reimagines issues relating to gynaecology, sexual regulation, hormonal management and cultural identity through the arts.

During the conversation itself, the panel will focus on the current status of genome editing, presenting a nuanced alternative to sensationalist media narratives that often frame genome editing as a set of dichotomized future predictions, either utopian or dystopian. Stepping back into the present, the speakers will rethink the implications of genome editing through a creative lens, exploring the intersection of scientific and artistic interventions as they relate to human enhancement. Both panel and exhibition will approach these topics with an emphasis on their social implications, exploring in particular issues relating to sexual reproduction, fertility and sexual technologies – simultaneously raising awareness of sexual politics and the medicalization of the body.

The news item goes on to briefly describe the panelists.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

Better motor control for prosthetic hands (the illusion of feeling) and a discussion of superprostheses and reality

I have two bits about prosthetics, one which focuses on how most of us think of them and another about science fiction fantasies.

Better motor control

This new technology comes via a collaboration between the University of Alberta, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, from a March 18, 2018 article by Nicole Ireland for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online,

Rob Anderson was fighting wildfires in Alberta when the helicopter he was in crashed into the side of a mountain. He survived, but lost his left arm and left leg.

More than 10 years after that accident, Anderson, now 39, says prosthetic limb technology has come a long way, and he feels fortunate to be using “top of the line stuff” to help him function as normally as possible. In fact, he continues to work for the Alberta government’s wildfire fighting service.

His powered prosthetic hand can do basic functions like opening and closing, but he doesn’t feel connected to it — and has limited ability to perform more intricate movements with it, such as shaking hands or holding a glass.

Anderson, who lives in Grande Prairie, Alta., compares its function to “doing things with a long pair of pliers.”

“There’s a disconnect between what you’re physically touching and what your body is doing,” he told CBC News.

Anderson is one of four Canadian participants in a study that suggests there’s a way to change that. …

Six people, all of whom had arm amputations from below the elbow or higher, took part in the research. It found that strategically placed vibrating “robots” made them “feel” the movements of their prosthetic hands, allowing them to grasp and grip objects with much more control and accuracy.

All of the participants had all previously undergone a specialized surgical procedure called “targeted re-innervation.” The nerves that had connected to their hands before they were amputated were rewired to link instead to muscles (including the biceps and triceps) in their remaining upper arms and in their chests.

For the study, researchers placed the robotic devices on the skin over those re-innervated muscles and vibrated them as the participants opened, closed, grasped or pinched with their prosthetic hands.

While the vibration was turned on, the participants “felt” their artificial hands moving and could adjust their grip based on the sensation. …

I have an April 24, 2017 posting about a tetraplegic patient who had a number of electrodes implanted in his arms and hands linked to a brain-machine interface and which allowed him to move his hands and arms; the implants were later removed. It is a different problem with a correspondingly different technological solution but there does seem to be increased interest in implanting sensors and electrodes into the human body to increase mobility and/or sensation.

Anderson describes how it ‘feels,

“It was kind of surreal,” Anderson said. “I could visually see the hand go out, I would touch something, I would squeeze it and my phantom hand felt like it was being closed and squeezing on something and it was sending the message back to my brain.

“It was a very strange sensation to actually be able to feel that feedback because I hadn’t in 10 years.”

The feeling of movement in the prosthetic hand is an illusion, the researchers say, since the vibration is actually happening to a muscle elsewhere in the body. But the sensation appeared to have a real effect on the participants.

“They were able to control their grasp function and how much they were opening the hand, to the same degree that someone with an intact hand would,” said study co-author Dr. Jacqueline Hebert, an associate professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta.

Although the researchers are encouraged by the study findings, they acknowledge that there was a small number of participants, who all had access to the specialized re-innervation surgery to redirect the nerves from their amputated hands to other parts of their body.

The next step, they say, is to see if they can also simulate the feeling of movement in a broader range of people who have had other types of amputations, including legs, and have not had the re-innervation surgery.

Here’s a March 15, 2018  CBC New Brunswick radio interview about the work,

This is a bit longer than most of the embedded audio pieces that I have here but it’s worth it. Sadly, I can’t identify the interviewer who did a very good job with Jon Sensinger, associate director of UNB’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering. One more thing, I noticed that the interviewer made no mention of the University of Alberta in her introduction or in the subsequent interview. I gather regionalism reigns supreme everywhere in Canada. Or, maybe she and Sensinger just forgot. It happens when you’re excited. Also, there were US institutions in Ohio and Virginia that participated in this work.

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

Illusory movement perception improves motor control for prosthetic hands by Paul D. Marasco, Jacqueline S. Hebert, Jon W. Sensinger, Courtney E. Shell, Jonathon S. Schofield, Zachary C. Thumser, Raviraj Nataraj, Dylan T. Beckler, Michael R. Dawson, Dan H. Blustein, Satinder Gill, Brett D. Mensh, Rafael Granja-Vazquez, Madeline D. Newcomb, Jason P. Carey, and Beth M. Orzell. Science Translational Medicine 14 Mar 2018: Vol. 10, Issue 432, eaao6990 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aao6990

This paper is open access.

Superprostheses and our science fiction future

A March 20, 2018 news item on phys.org features an essay on about superprostheses and/or assistive devices,

Assistive devices may soon allow people to perform virtually superhuman feats. According to Robert Riener, however, there are more pressing goals than developing superhumans.

What had until recently been described as a futuristic vision has become a reality: the first self-declared “cyborgs” have had chips implanted in their bodies so that they can open doors and make cashless payments. The latest robotic hand prostheses succeed in performing all kinds of grips and tasks requiring dexterity. Parathletes fitted with running and spring prostheses compete – and win – against the best, non-impaired athletes. Then there are robotic pets and talking humanoid robots adding a bit of excitement to nursing homes.

Some media are even predicting that these high-tech creations will bring about forms of physiological augmentation overshadowing humans’ physical capabilities in ways never seen before. For instance, hearing aids are eventually expected to offer the ultimate in hearing; retinal implants will enable vision with a sharpness rivalling that of any eagle; motorised exoskeletons will transform soldiers into tireless fighting machines.

Visions of the future: the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution highlights the emergence of physiological augmentation. (Visualisations: Square Enix) Courtesy: ETH Zurich

Professor Robert Riener uses the image above to illustrate the notion of superprosthese in his March 20, 2018 essay on the ETH Zurich website,

All of these prophecies notwithstanding, our robotic transformation into superheroes will not be happening in the immediate future and can still be filed under Hollywood hero myths. Compared to the technology available today, our bodies are a true marvel whose complexity and performance allows us to perform an extremely wide spectrum of tasks. Hundreds of efficient muscles, thousands of independently operating motor units along with millions of sensory receptors and billions of nerve cells allow us to perform delicate and detailed tasks with tweezers or lift heavy loads. Added to this, our musculoskeletal system is highly adaptable, can partly repair itself and requires only minimal amounts of energy in the form of relatively small amounts of food consumed.

Machines will not be able to match this any time soon. Today’s assistive devices are still laboratory experiments or niche products designed for very specific tasks. Markus Rehm, an athlete with a disability, does not use his innovative spring prosthesis to go for walks or drive a car. Nor can today’s conventional arm prostheses help a person tie their shoes or button up their shirt. Lifting devices used for nursing care are not suitable for helping with personal hygiene tasks or in psychotherapy. And robotic pets quickly lose their charm the moment their batteries die.

Solving real problems

There is no denying that advances continue to be made. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, we have become dependent on relentless progress and growth, and we can no longer separate today’s world from this development. There are, however, more pressing issues to be solved than creating superhumans.

On the one hand, engineers need to dedicate their efforts to solving the real problems of patients, the elderly and people with disabilities. Better technical solutions are needed to help them lead normal lives and assist them in their work. We need motorised prostheses that also work in the rain and wheelchairs that can manoeuvre even with snow on the ground. Talking robotic nurses also need to be understood by hard-of-hearing pensioners as well as offer simple and dependable interactivity. Their batteries need to last at least one full day to be recharged overnight.

In addition, financial resources need to be available so that all people have access to the latest technologies, such as a high-quality household prosthesis for the family man, an extra prosthesis for the avid athlete or a prosthesis for the pensioner. [emphasis mine]

Breaking down barriers

What is just as important as the ongoing development of prostheses and assistive devices is the ability to minimise or eliminate physical barriers. Where there are no stairs, there is no need for elaborate special solutions like stair lifts or stairclimbing wheelchairs – or, presumably, fully motorised exoskeletons.

Efforts also need to be made to transform the way society thinks about people with disabilities. More acknowledgement of the day-to-day challenges facing patients with disabilities is needed, which requires that people be confronted with the topic of disability when they are still children. Such projects must be promoted at home and in schools so that living with impairments can also attain a state of normality and all people can partake in society. It is therefore also necessary to break down mental barriers.

The road to a virtually superhuman existence is still far and long. Anyone reading this text will not live to see it. In the meantime, the task at hand is to tackle the mundane challenges in order to simplify people’s daily lives in ways that do not require technology, that allow people to be active participants and improve their quality of life – instead of wasting our time getting caught up in cyborg euphoria and digital mania.

I’m struck by Riener’s reference to financial resources and access. Sensinger mentions financial resources in his CBC radio interview although his concern is with convincing funders that prostheses that mimic ‘feeling’ are needed.

I’m also struck by Riener’s discussion about nontechnological solutions for including people with all kinds of abilities and disabilities.

There was no grand plan for combining these two news bits; I just thought they were interesting together.

World Science Festival May 29 – June 3, 2018 in New York City

I haven’t featured the festival since 2014 having forgotten all about it but I received (via email) an April 30, 2018 news release announcing the latest iteration,

ANNOUNCING WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL NEW YORK CITY

MAY 29 THROUGH JUNE 3, 2018

OVER 70 INSPIRING SCIENCE-THEMED EVENTS EXPLORE THE VERY EDGE OF
KNOWLEDGE

Over six extraordinary days in New York City, from May 29 through June
3, 2018; the world’s leading scientists will explore the very edge of
knowledge and share their insights with the public.  Festival goers of
all ages can experience vibrant discussions and debates, evocative
performances and films, world-changing research updates,
thought-provoking town hall gatherings and fireside chats, hands-on
experiments and interactive outdoor explorations.  It’s an action
adventure for your mind!

See the full list of programs here:
https://www.worldsciencefestival.com/festival/world-science-festival-2018/

This year will highlight some of the incredible achievements of Women in
Science, celebrating and exploring their impact on the history and
future of scientific discovery. Perennial favorites will also return in
full force, including WSF main stage Big Ideas programs, the Flame
Challenge, Cool Jobs, and FREE outdoor events.

The World Science Festival makes the esoteric understandable and the
familiar fascinating. It has drawn more than 2.5 million participants
since its launch in 2008, with millions more experiencing the programs
online.

THE 2018 WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL IS NOT TO BE MISSED, SO MARK YOUR
CALENDAR AND SAVE THE DATES!

Here are a few items from the 2018 Festival’s program page,

Thursday, May 31, 2018

6:00 pm – 9:00 pm

American Museum of Natural History

Host: Faith Salie

How deep is the ocean? Why do whales sing? How far is 20,000 leagues—and what is a league anyway? Raise a glass and take a deep dive into the foamy waters of oceanic arcana under the blue whale in the Museum’s Hall of Ocean Life. Comedian and journalist Faith Salie will regale you with a pub-style night of trivia questions, physical challenges, and hilarity to celebrate the Museum’s newest temporary exhibition, Unseen Oceans. Don’t worry. When the going gets tough, we won’t let you drown. Teams of top scientists—and even a surprise guest or two—will be standing by to assist you. Program includes one free drink and private access to the special exhibition Unseen Oceans. Special exhibition access is available to ticket holders beginning one hour before the program, from 6–7pm.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College

Participants: Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Nim Tottenham, Carla Shatz, And Others

What if your brain at 77 were as plastic as it was at 7? What if you could learn Mandarin with the ease of a toddler or play Rachmaninoff without breaking a sweat? A growing understanding of neuroplasticity suggests these fantasies could one day become reality. Neuroplasticity may also be the key to solving diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, and autism. This program will guide you through the intricate neural pathways inside our skulls, as leading neuroscientists discuss their most recent findings and both the tantalizing possibilities and pitfalls for our future cognitive selves.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation. 

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Friday, June 1, 2018

8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts

Participants: Yann LeCun, Susan Schneider, Max Tegmark, And Others

“Success in creating effective A.I.,” said the late Stephen Hawking, “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know.” Elon Musk called A.I. “a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.” Are we creating the instruments of our own destruction or exciting tools for our future survival? Once we teach a machine to learn on its own—as the programmers behind AlphaGo have done, to wondrous results—where do we draw moral and computational lines? Leading specialists in A.I, neuroscience, and philosophy will tackle the very questions that may define the future of humanity.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation. 

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Friday, June 1, 2018

8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College

Participants Marcela Carena, Janet Conrad, Michael Doser, Hitoshi Murayama, Neil Turok

“If I had a world of my own,” said the Mad Hatter, “nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be.” Nonsensical as this may sound, it comes close to describing an interesting paradox: You exist. You shouldn’t. Stars and galaxies and planets exist. They shouldn’t. The nascent universe contained equal parts matter and antimatter that should have instantly obliterated each other, turning the Big Bang into the Big Fizzle. And yet, here we are: flesh, blood, stars, moons, sky. Why? Come join us as we dive deep down the rabbit hole of solving the mystery of the missing antimatter.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

10:00 am – 11:00 am

Museum of the City of New York

ParticipantsKubi Ackerman

What makes a city a city? How do you build buildings, plan streets, and design parks with humans and their needs in mind? Join architect and Future Lab Project Director, Kubi Ackerman, on an exploration in which you’ll venture outside to examine New York City anew, seeing it through the eyes of a visionary museum architect, and then head to the Future City Lab’s awesome interactive space where you will design your own park. This is a student-only program for kids currently enrolled in the 4th grade – 8th grade. Parents/Guardians should drop off their children for this event.

Supported by the Bezos Family Foundation.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

11:00 am – 12:30 pm

NYU Global Center, Grand Hall

Kerouac called it “the only truth.” Shakespeare called it “the food of love.” Maya Angelou called it “my refuge.” And now scientists are finally discovering what these thinkers, musicians, or even any of us with a Spotify account and a set of headphones could have told you on instinct: music lights up multiple corners of the brain, strengthening our neural networks, firing up memory and emotion, and showing us what it means to be human. In fact, music is as essential to being human as language and may even predate it. Can music also repair broken networks, restore memory, and strengthen the brain? Join us as we speak with neuroscientists and other experts in the fields of music and the brain as we pluck the notes of these fascinating phenomenon.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts

Moderator“Science Bob” Pflugfelder

Participants William Clark, Matt Lanier, Michael Meacham, Casie Parish Fisher, Mike Ressler

Most people think of scientists as people who work in funny-smelling labs filled with strange equipment. But there are lots of scientists whose jobs often take them out of the lab, into the world, and beyond. Come join some of the coolest of them in Cool Jobs. You’ll get to meet a forensic scientist, a venomous snake-loving herpetologist, a NASA engineer who lands spacecrafts on Mars, and inventors who are changing the future of sports.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

NYU Global Center, Grand Hall

“We can rebuild him. We have the technology,” began the opening sequence of the hugely popular 70’s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Forty-five years later, how close are we, in reality, to that sci-fi fantasy? More thornily, now that artificial intelligence may soon pass human intelligence, and the merging of human with machine is potentially on the table, what will it then mean to “be human”? Join us for an important discussion with scientists, technologists and ethicists about the path toward superhumanism and the quest for immortality.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College

Participants Brett Frischmann, Tim Hwang, Aviv Ovadya, Meredith Whittaker

“Move fast and break things,” went the Silicon Valley rallying cry, and for a long time we cheered along. Born in dorm rooms and garages, implemented by iconoclasts in hoodies, Big Tech, in its infancy, spouted noble goals of bringing us closer. But now, in its adolescence, it threatens to tear us apart. Some worry about an “Infocalypse”: a dystopian disruption so deep and dire we will no longer trust anything we see, hear, or read. Is this pessimistic vision of the future real or hyperbole? Is it time for tech to slow down, grow up, and stop breaking things? Big names in Big Tech will offer big thoughts on this massive societal shift, its terrifying pitfalls, and practical solutions both for ourselves and for future generations.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

Learn More

Buy Tickets

This looks like an exciting lineup and there’s a lot more for you to see on the 2018 Festival’s program page. You may also want to take a look at the list of participants which features some expected specialty speakers, an architect, a mathematician, a neuroscientist and some unexpected names such Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who I know as a basketball player and currently, a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Bringing to mind that Walt Whitman quote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” (from Whitman’s Song of Myself Wikipedia entry).

If you’re going, there are free events and note a few of the event are already sold out.

University of Washington (state) is accelerating nanoscale research with Institute for Nano-Engineered Systems

A December 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announced a new research institute at the University of Washington (state),

The University of Washington [UW} has launched a new institute aimed at accelerating research at the nanoscale: the Institute for Nano-Engineered Systems, or NanoES. Housed in a new, multimillion-dollar facility on the UW’s Seattle campus, the institute will pursue impactful advancements in a variety of disciplines — including energy, materials science, computation and medicine. Yet these advancements will be at a technological scale a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The institute was launched at a reception Dec. 4 [2017] at its headquarters in the $87.8-million Nano Engineering and Sciences Building. During the event, speakers including UW officials and NanoES partners celebrated the NanoES mission to capitalize on the university’s strong record of research at the nanoscale and engage partners in industry at the onset of new projects.

A December 5, 2017 UW news release, which originated the news item, somewhat clarifies the declarations in the two excerpted paragraphs in the above,

The vision of the NanoES, which is part of the UW’s College of Engineering, is to act as a magnet for researchers in nanoscale science and engineering, with a focus on enabling industry partnership and entrepreneurship at the earliest stages of research projects. According to Karl Böhringer, director of the NanoES and a UW professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, this unique approach will hasten the development of solutions to the field’s most pressing challenges: the manufacturing of scalable, high-yield nano-engineered systems for applications in information processing, energy, health and interconnected life.

“The University of Washington is well known for its expertise in nanoscale materials, processing, physics and biology — as well as its cutting-edge nanofabrication, characterization and testing facilities,” said Böhringer, who stepped down as director of the UW-based Washington Nanofabrication Facility to lead the NanoES. “NanoES will build on these strengths, bringing together people, tools and opportunities to develop nanoscale devices and systems.”

The centerpiece of the NanoES is its headquarters, the Nano Engineering and Sciences Building. The building houses 90,300 square feet of research and learning space, and was funded largely by the College of Engineering and Sound Transit. It contains an active learning classroom, a teaching laboratory and a 3,000-square-foot common area designed expressly to promote the sharing and exchanging of ideas. The remainder includes “incubator-style” office space and more than 40,000 square feet of flexible multipurpose laboratory and instrumentation space. The building’s location and design elements are intended to limit vibrations and electromagnetic interference so it can house sensitive experiments.

NanoES will house research in nanotechnology fields that hold promise for high impact, such as:

  • Augmented humanity, which includes technology to both aid and replace human capability in a way that joins user and machine as one – and foresees portable, wearable, implantable and networked technology for applications such as personalized medical care, among others.
  • Integrated photonics, which ranges from single-photon sensors for health care diagnostic tests to large-scale, integrated networks of photonic devices.
  • Scalable nanomanufacturing, which aims to develop low-cost, high-volume manufacturing processes. These would translate device prototypes constructed in research laboratories into system- and network-level nanomanufacturing methods for applications ranging from the 3-D printing of cell and tissue scaffolds to ultrathin solar cells.

A ribbon cutting ceremony.

Cutting the ribbon for the NanoES on Dec. 4. Left-to-right: Karl Böhringer, director of the NanoES and a UW professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering; Nena Golubovic, physical sciences director for IP Group; Mike Bragg, Dean of the UW College of Engineering; Jevne Micheau-Cunningham, deputy director of the NanoES.Kathryn Sauber/University of Washington

Collaborations with other UW-based institutions will provide additional resources for the NanoES. Endeavors in scalable nanomanufacturing, for example, will rely on the roll-to-roll processing facility at the UW Clean Energy Institute‘s Washington Clean Energy Testbeds or on advanced surface characterization capabilities at the Molecular Analysis Facility. In addition, the Washington Nanofabrication Facility recently completed a three-year, $37 million upgrade to raise it to an ISO Class 5 nanofabrication facility.

UW faculty and outside collaborators will build new research programs in the Nano Engineering and Sciences Building. Eric Klavins, a UW professor of electrical engineering, recently moved part of his synthetic biology research team to the building, adjacent to his collaborators in the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute and the Institute for Protein Design.

“We are extremely excited about the interdisciplinary and collaborative potential of the new space,” said Klavins.

The NanoES also has already produced its first spin-out company, Tunoptix, which was co-founded by Böhringer and recently received startup funding from IP Group, a U.K.-based venture capital firm.

“IP Group is very excited to work with the University of Washington,” said Nena Golubovic, physical sciences director for IP Group. “We are looking forward to the new collaborations and developments in science and technology that will grow from this new partnership.”

A woman speaking at a podium.

Nena Golubovic, physical sciences director for IP Group, delivering remarks at the Dec. 4 opening of NanoES.Kathryn Sauber/University of Washington

“We are eager to work with our partners at the IP Group to bring our technology to the market, and we appreciate their vision and investment in the NanoES Integrated Photonics Initiative,” said Tunoptix entrepreneurial lead Mike Robinson. “NanoES was the ideal environment in which to start our company.”

The NanoES leaders hope to forge similar partnerships with researchers, investors and industry leaders to develop technologies for portable, wearable, implantable and networked nanotechnologies for personalized medical care, a more efficient interconnected life and interconnected mobility. In addition to expertise, personnel and state-of-the-art research space and equipment, the NanoES will provide training, research support and key connections to capital and corporate partners.

“We believe this unique approach is the best way to drive innovations from idea to fabrication to scale-up and testing,” said Böhringer. “Some of the most promising solutions to these huge challenges are rooted in nanotechnology.”

The NanoES is supported by funds from the College of Engineering and the National Science Foundation, as well as capital investments from investors and industry partners.

You can find out more about Nano ES here.

A bioengineered robot hand with its own nervous system: machine/flesh and a job opening

A November 14, 2017 news item on phys.org announces a grant for a research project which will see engineered robot hands combined with regenerative medicine to imbue neuroprosthetic hands with the sense of touch,

The sense of touch is often taken for granted. For someone without a limb or hand, losing that sense of touch can be devastating. While highly sophisticated prostheses with complex moving fingers and joints are available to mimic almost every hand motion, they remain frustratingly difficult and unnatural for the user. This is largely because they lack the tactile experience that guides every movement. This void in sensation results in limited use or abandonment of these very expensive artificial devices. So why not make a prosthesis that can actually “feel” its environment?

That is exactly what an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Utah School of Medicine aims to do. They are developing a first-of-its-kind bioengineered robotic hand that will grow and adapt to its environment. This “living” robot will have its own peripheral nervous system directly linking robotic sensors and actuators. FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science is leading the multidisciplinary team that has received a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the [US] National Institutes of Health for a project titled “Virtual Neuroprosthesis: Restoring Autonomy to People Suffering from Neurotrauma.”

A November14, 2017 Florida Atlantic University (FAU) news release by Gisele Galoustian, which originated the news item, goes into more detail,

With expertise in robotics, bioengineering, behavioral science, nerve regeneration, electrophysiology, microfluidic devices, and orthopedic surgery, the research team is creating a living pathway from the robot’s touch sensation to the user’s brain to help amputees control the robotic hand. A neuroprosthesis platform will enable them to explore how neurons and behavior can work together to regenerate the sensation of touch in an artificial limb.

At the core of this project is a cutting-edge robotic hand and arm developed in the BioRobotics Laboratory in FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. Just like human fingertips, the robotic hand is equipped with numerous sensory receptors that respond to changes in the environment. Controlled by a human, it can sense pressure changes, interpret the information it is receiving and interact with various objects. It adjusts its grip based on an object’s weight or fragility. But the real challenge is figuring out how to send that information back to the brain using living residual neural pathways to replace those that have been damaged or destroyed by trauma.

“When the peripheral nerve is cut or damaged, it uses the rich electrical activity that tactile receptors create to restore itself. We want to examine how the fingertip sensors can help damaged or severed nerves regenerate,” said Erik Engeberg, Ph.D., principal investigator, an associate professor in FAU’s Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering, and director of FAU’s BioRobotics Laboratory. “To accomplish this, we are going to directly connect these living nerves in vitro and then electrically stimulate them on a daily basis with sensors from the robotic hand to see how the nerves grow and regenerate while the hand is operated by limb-absent people.”

For the study, the neurons will not be kept in conventional petri dishes. Instead, they will be placed in  biocompatible microfluidic chambers that provide a nurturing environment mimicking the basic function of living cells. Sarah E. Du, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, an assistant professor in FAU’s Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering, and an expert in the emerging field of microfluidics, has developed these tiny customized artificial chambers with embedded micro-electrodes. The research team will be able to stimulate the neurons with electrical impulses from the robot’s hand to help regrowth after injury. They will morphologically and electrically measure in real-time how much neural tissue has been restored.

Jianning Wei, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, an associate professor of biomedical science in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, and an expert in neural damage and regeneration, will prepare the neurons in vitro, observe them grow and see how they fare and regenerate in the aftermath of injury. This “virtual” method will give the research team multiple opportunities to test and retest the nerves without any harm to subjects.

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to detect electrical activity in the brain, Emmanuelle Tognoli, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, associate research professor in FAU’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and an expert in electrophysiology and neural, behavioral, and cognitive sciences, will examine how the tactile information from the robotic sensors is passed onto the brain to distinguish scenarios with successful or unsuccessful functional restoration of the sense of touch. Her objective: to understand how behavior helps nerve regeneration and how this nerve regeneration helps the behavior.

Once the nerve impulses from the robot’s tactile sensors have gone through the microfluidic chamber, they are sent back to the human user manipulating the robotic hand. This is done with a special device that converts the signals coming from the microfluidic chambers into a controllable pressure at a cuff placed on the remaining portion of the amputated person’s arm. Users will know if they are squeezing the object too hard or if they are losing their grip.

Engeberg also is working with Douglas T. Hutchinson, M.D., co-principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Orthopedics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, who specializes in hand and orthopedic surgery. They are developing a set of tasks and behavioral neural indicators of performance that will ultimately reveal how to promote a healthy sensation of touch in amputees and limb-absent people using robotic devices. The research team also is seeking a post-doctoral researcher with multi-disciplinary experience to work on this breakthrough project.

Here’s more about the job opportunity from the FAU BioRobotics Laboratory job posting, (I checked on January 30, 2018 and it seems applications are still being accepted.)

Post-doctoral Opportunity

Dated Posted: Oct. 13, 2017

The BioRobotics Lab at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) invites applications for a NIH NIBIB-funded Postdoctoral position to develop a Virtual Neuroprosthesis aimed at providing a sense of touch in amputees and limb-absent people.

Candidates should have a Ph.D. in one of the following degrees: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, bioengineering or related, with interest and/or experience in transdisciplinary work at the intersection of robotic hands, biology, and biomedical systems. Prior experience in the neural field will be considered an advantage, though not a necessity. Underrepresented minorities and women are warmly encouraged to apply.

The postdoctoral researcher will be co-advised across the department of Mechanical Engineering and the Center for Complex Systems & Brain Sciences through an interdisciplinary team whose expertise spans Robotics, Microfluidics, Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience and Orthopedic Surgery.

The position will be for one year with a possibility of extension based on performance. Salary will be commensurate with experience and qualifications. Review of applications will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled.

The application should include:

  1. a cover letter with research interests and experiences,
  2. a CV, and
  3. names and contact information for three professional references.

Qualified candidates can contact Erik Engeberg, Ph.D., Associate Professor, in the FAU Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering at eengeberg@fau.edu. Please reference AcademicKeys.com in your cover letter when applying for or inquiring about this job announcement.

You can find the apply button on this page. Good luck!

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself?

It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”

Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.

If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.

Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),

Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center,[2] where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write.[3] Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.[2]

He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs.[2][4][1] Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all.[5] Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic.[6][7] In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.[8]

In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples.[2] This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.[9]

In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive.[10] Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.[11]

I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,

I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,

In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.

Zayner sells a full home biohacking lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. [Photo: The ODIN]

He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …

US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.

The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.

Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”

Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.

People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.

It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.

Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”

In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor,[1] who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity[2] “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.”[3] He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.

Canadian content*

A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,

With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”

In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”

According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.

There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”

Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.

“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”

You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.

ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.

*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.

ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,

When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.

Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)

So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.

“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October [2017] had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.

Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.

Audio tattoo

When I use the term machine/flesh, it’s usually about hardware being combined with the body (e.g., neuroprosthetics) but this news bit concerns a rather different way of integrating technology into the body. From a January ?, 2018 news item on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Newsbeat,

In the message, her grandma can be heard wishing her a happy birthday, before saying “I love you”.

She tells her granddaughter [Sakyrah Morris of Chicago, Illinois, US]: “You should be up and awake because it’s your birthday, you rock-headed little kid.”

With an app, Sakyrah is able to scan the waveform of the voice recording and play it back using image recognition.

“My grandmother passed away in May 2015 and my birthday was the month before in April,” she  told Newsbeat.

“She called me a little past midnight to wish me happy birthday and to tell me that she loved me.

“I had been holding onto that voicemail for what’s been almost three years now and I got the idea recently to get it tattooed.

“I figured it’d be something permanent that would be across my heart to be more meaningful.”

Mark Molloy’s January 5, 2018 article for The Telegraph provides more details about Morris and her audio tattoo (Note: A link has been removed),

Singer Sakyrah Morris can hear a voicemail birthday message left by her grandmother by simply hovering her smartphone camera over the soundwave tattoo.

The personalised tattoos are created by company Skin Motion using a combination of audio processing, image recognition and cloud computing.

When her grandmother passed away, Sakyrah “decided to save the voicemail in as many places as I could” and later decided to invest in a soundwave tattoo.

“About a month ago while working on one of my songs, I started to observe the sound waves on the screen and I thought that it would be great for me to get a tattoo of one with my grandmother’s voicemail,” she added.

“After doing some research, I came across a new company called Skin Motion. Their app allows you to link the image of your tattoo to the audio of your choice, so that when you hold your camera over the tattoo, the audio will play the message. …

You can hear the tattoo (from Emily Chan’s Jan. ,3 2018 Daily Mail article),

I went digging for more information about Skin Motion and found this on their About Us webpage,

Skin Motion is a tattoo artist network and patent-pending cloud platform for creating personalized augmented reality Tattoos.

In April 2017, tattoo artist Nate Siggard created the first Soundwave Tattoo™ to be played back using a mobile app. He created a video to show how it worked and the video went viral with over 280 million views.

Skin Motion was founded shortly after to make Soundwave Tattoos a reality for people all over the world who wanted to get them. Some of these people sent us messages about why they wanted to get a Soundwave Tattoo and the stories they shared inspired a team of experts to create the patent-pending augmented reality cloud platform for personalized augmented reality Tattoos.

Skin Motion is based in Los Angeles, California and has licensed Tattoo Artists from countries all over the world to create Soundwave Tattoos. You can find an artist close to you in the Tattoo Artist Directory.

A little more digging brought me to the Insider YouTube channel where I found this video, which offers a little more detail about how the technology works,

I wonder what happens should your ‘loved’ one become an ‘unloved’ one. Is the removal process the same as with a standard tattoo? Curiously, the question is not in the company’s Frequently Asked Questions.

A cheaper way to make artificial organs

In the quest to develop artificial organs, the University of British Columbia (UBC) is the not the first research institution that comes to my mind. It seems I may need to reevaluate now that UBC (Okanagan) has announced some work on bio-inks and artificial organs in a Sept. 12, 2017 news  release (also on EurekAlert) by Patty Wellborn,,

A new bio-ink that may support a more efficient and inexpensive fabrication of human tissues and organs has been created by researchers at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

Keekyoung Kim, an assistant professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering, says this development can accelerate advances in regenerative medicine.

Using techniques like 3D printing, scientists are creating bio-material products that function alongside living cells. These products are made using a number of biomaterials including gelatin methacrylate (GelMA), a hydrogel that can serve as a building block in bio-printing. This type of bio-material—called bio-ink—are made of living cells, but can be printed and molded into specific organ or tissue shapes.

The UBC team analyzed the physical and biological properties of three different GelMA hydrogels—porcine skin, cold-water fish skin and cold-soluble gelatin. They found that hydrogel made from cold-soluble gelatin (gelatin which dissolves without heat) was by far the best performer and a strong candidate for future 3D organ printing.

“A big drawback of conventional hydrogel is its thermal instability. Even small changes in temperature cause significant changes in its viscosity or thickness,” says Kim. “This makes it problematic for many room temperature bio-fabrication systems, which are compatible with only a narrow range of hydrogel viscosities and which must generate products that are as uniform as possible if they are to function properly.”

Kim’s team created two new hydrogels—one from fish skin, and one from cold-soluble gelatin—and compared their properties to those of porcine skin GelMA. Although fish skin GelMA had some benefits, cold-soluble GelMA was the top overall performer. Not only could it form healthy tissue scaffolds, allowing cells to successfully grow and adhere to it, but it was also thermally stable at room temperature.

The UBC team also demonstrated that cold-soluble GelMA produces consistently uniform droplets at temperatures, thus making it an excellent choice for use in 3D bio-printing.

“We hope this new bio-ink will help researchers create improved artificial organs and lead to the development of better drugs, tissue engineering and regenerative therapies,” Kim says. “The next step is to investigate whether or not cold-soluble GelMA-based tissue scaffolds are can be used long-term both in the laboratory and in real-world transplants.”

Three times cheaper than porcine skin gelatin, cold-soluble gelatin is used primarily in culinary applications.

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

Comparative study of gelatin methacrylate hydrogels from different sources for biofabrication applications by Zongjie Wang, Zhenlin Tian, Fredric Menard, and Keekyoung Kim. Biofabrication, Volume 9, Number 4 Special issue on Bioinks https://doi.org/10.1088/1758-5090/aa83cf Published 21 August 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

Brain composer

This is a representation of the work they are doing on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at the Technical University of Graz (TU Graz; Austria),

A Sept. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org announces the research into thinking melodies turning them into a musical score,

TU Graz researchers develop new brain-computer interface application that allows music to be composed by the power of thought. They have published their results in the current issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) can replace bodily functions to a certain degree. Thanks to BCI, physically impaired persons can control special prostheses via their minds, surf the internet and write emails.

A group led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering shows that experiences of quite a different tone can be sounded from the keys of brain-computer interfaces. Derived from an established BCI method for writing, the team has developed a new application by which music can be composed and transferred onto a musical score through the power of thought. It employs a special cap that measures brain waves, the adapted BCI, music composition software, and a bit of musical knowledge.

A Sept. 6, 2017 TU Graz press release by Suzanne Eigner, which originated the news item, explains the research in more detail,

The basic principle of the BCI method used, which is called P300, can be briefly described: various options, such as letters or notes, pauses, chords, etc. flash by one after the other in a table. If you’re trained and can focus on the desired option while it lights up, you cause a minute change in your brain waves. The BCI recognises this change and draws conclusions about the chosen option.

Musical test persons

18 test persons chosen for the study by Gernot Müller-Putz, Andreas Pinegger and Selina C. Wriessnegger from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering as well as Hannah Hiebel, meanwhile at the Institute of Cognitive Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Graz, had to “think” melodies onto a musical score. All test subjects were of sound bodily health during the study and had a certain degree of basic musical and compositional knowledge since they all played musical instruments to some degree. Among the test persons was the late Graz composer and clarinettist, Franz Cibulka. “The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard. And what is more important: the test persons enjoyed it. After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score and then play them. The very positive results of the study with bodily healthy test persons are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients,” stresses Müller-Putz.

Sideshow of BCI research

This little-noticed sideshow of the lively BCI research at TU Graz, with its distinct focus on disabled persons, shows us which other avenues may yet be worth exploring. Meanwhile there are some initial attempts at BCI systems on smart phones. This makes it easier for people to use BCI applications, since the smart phone as powerful computer is becoming part of the BCI system. It is thus conceivable, for instance, to have BCI apps which can analyse brain signals for various applications. “20 years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable. Now we can do it, and at the same time have tens of new, different ideas which are in part, once again, a long way from becoming reality. We still need a bit more time before it is mature enough for daily applications. The BCI community is working in many directions at high pressure.

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

Composing only by thought: Novel application of the P300 brain-computer interface by Andreas Pinegger, Hannah Hiebel, Selina C. Wriessnegger, Gernot R. Müller-Putz. PLOS https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181584 Published: September 6, 2017

This paper is open access.

This BCI ‘sideshow’ reminded me of The Music Man, a musical by Meredith Wilson. It was both a play and a film  and I’ve only ever seen the 1962 film. It features a con man, Harold Hill, who sells musical instruments and uniforms in small towns in Iowa. He has no musical training but while he’s conning the townspeople he convinces them that he can provide musical training with his ‘think method’. After falling in love with one of the townsfolk, he is hunted down and made to prove his method works. This is a clip from a Broadway revival of the play where Harold Hill is hoping that his ‘think method’ while yield results,

Of course, the people in this study had musicaltraining so they could think a melody into a musical score but I find the echo from the past amusing nonetheless.