Tag Archives: CBC

Silence of the Labs (exposé) a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television event scheduled for January 10, 2014

I’ve perhaps overstated the case by calling the upcoming telecast ‘Silence of the Labs’ an event,. For many people in the Canadian science community, it will be an event but for most of the television audience it’s simply the first new episode of the Fifth Estate’s 2014 schedule. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Fifth Estate, it’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s [CBC] longest running, 39th season, and most prestigious investigative journalism television programme.)

Assuming there are some people who haven’t been following this story about the ‘silencing’ of Canada’s scientists or censorship as it has been called, here’s a précis (and if you’ve been following it more closely than I have and note any errors or have any additions, please do use the commenting option (Note: Due to spam issues, I moderate comments so it may take a few hours or more [I don't usually check the blog on the weekends]  before your comments appear.)

I think my earliest mention of the topic was in 2009 (Sept. 21, 2009; scroll down to the last paragraph). At this point, the Conservative government  had put a ‘muzzle’ on government scientists working for Environment Canada not allowing them to speak directly to media representatives about their work. All questions were to be directed to ministry communications officers. In fact, the muzzle was first discussed in a National Post Jan. 31, 200-8 article by Margaret Munro (which predates this blog’s existence by a few months). In a Sept. 16, 2013 posting, I featured the then recent muzzling of Natural Resources Canada, a story which was first covered by Margaret Munro. My understanding is that Health Canada had also been ‘muzzled’ but that was done earlier by the Liberal government when it was in power.

My colleague, David Bruggemen (Pasco Phronesis blog) disagrees with the contention by many in the Canadian science community that these ‘muzzles’ constitute a form of censorship. In addition to the postings he has made on his blog he also commented on my March 7, 2012 posting (I linked to one of David’s postings on the topic and included an excerpt from it) where I discussed my failure to get answers to questions from an institution located on the University of British Columbia lands and linked it to the ‘muzzle’. In that context,, I mused about censorship.

Since 2012 the focus seems to have shifted from media representatives being able to get direct and uninhibited access to scientists to the public’s right to know and attempts to ‘shut down’ scientific inquiry. In July 2012, there was a rally in Ottawa called Death of Evidence (discussed in both my July 10, 2012 posting and my July 13, 2012 posting followed by a 2013 cross Canada event, Stand up for Science described in my Oct. 4, 2013 posting. As I noted in that posting, most of the science being ‘censored’ or ‘attacked’ is environmental. Institutions such as the Perimeter Institute (theoretical physics)  in Ontario and TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics in British Columbia have done very well under the Conservative government.

with all that, here’s a preview (51 seconds) of the Silence of the Labs,

You can find out more about the episode here and, if you should miss the telecast, you’ll probably be able to watch later on the Fifth Estate’s CBC  Player webpage. As for the ‘Silence of the Labs” (hat off for the pun), I believe it will be broadcast at 9 pm regardless of timezone on the local CBC channel across most of the country; I assume that as usual Newfoundland will enjoy the telecast at 9:30 pm.

Simon Fraser University’s (Vancouver, Canada) Feb. 19, 2013 Café Scientifique

There are two very different descriptions of this upcoming event, first from Simon Fraser University’s Café Scientifique webpage description,

Tuesday, February 19
Café Scientifique

Time: 7-8:30pm

Place: CBC, 700 Hamilton St.

Cost: Free, email [email protected] to reserve your spot

The Chemistry behind how Bird’s Nest soup led to Influenza drugs Influenza type A viral infection continues to be a serious health problem facing the human population as it continually changes how it is seen by the immune system by making modifications to the proteins that cover its surface. Dr. Andrew Bennet of SFU’s Chemistry Dept. will discuss how inhibition of one of the viral surface proteins that is called neuraminidase (the N in H5N1) is proving to be a suitable approach in the design of anti-viral drugs. Moderated by Stephen Quinn, CBC Radio. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Everyone welcome, refreshments served. Please email [email protected] to reserve your free seat. 7:00 – 8:30 pm, CBC, 700 Hamilton St. Vancouver

Then there’s this from SFU’s Café Scientifique 2012 – 2013 List of Speakers webpage,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Chemistry Behind How Bird’s Nest Soup Led to Influenza Drugs

Speaker:  Dr. Andy Bennett, Department of Chemistry, SFU

Influenza type A viral infection continues to be a serious health problem facing the human population worldwide as it continually changes how it is seen by the immune system by making modifications to the proteins that cover its surface.  Inhibition of one of the viral surface proteins that is called neuraminidase (the N in H5N1) has proved to be a suitable approach in the design of anti-viral drugs.

Note the location is the CBC Studio at 700 Hamilton Street, Vancouver

Please RSVP to [email protected]

Frankly, this seems like less fun that a talk at the Railway Club, which is where one of the other Cafe Scientifique groups usually meets. The Railway Club has a casual informal atmosphere; you can get a beer and some very interesting science conversation and, yes, someone does speak but the whole dynamic changes when you’ve got that beer in hand.  This SFU/CBC setup reminds me too much of sitting in lecture halls.

A brainwave computer controller named Muse

Toronto-based (Canada) company, InteraXon has just presented a portable brainwave controller at the ParisLeWeb 2012 meeting according to a Dec. 5, 2012 article by Nancy Owano for phys.org,

A Canadian company is talking about having a window, aka computer screen, into your mind. Another of the many ways to put it—they believe your computer can be so into you. And vice-versa. InteraXon, a Canadian company, is focused on making a business out of mind-control technology via a headband device, and they are planning to launch this as a $199 brainwave computer controller called Muse. The company is running an Indiegogo campaign to obtain needed funds. Muse is a Bluetooth-connected headset with four electroencephalography sensors, communicating with the person’s computer via the Bluetooth connection.

Here’s more about the technology from InteraXon’s How It Works webpage,

Your brain generates electrical patterns that resonate outside your head, which accumulate into brainwaves detectable by an Electroencephalograph (EEG). The EEG can’t read your thoughts, just your brain’s overall pattern of activity, like how relaxed or alert you are. With practice you can learn to manipulate your brainwave pattern, like flexing a muscle you’ve never used before.

InteraXon’s interface works by turning brainwaves into binary (ones and zeros). We’re like interpreters fluent in the language of the mind: our system analyses the frequency of your brainwaves and then translates them into a control signal for the computer to understand.

Just like a button or switch can activate whatever it’s connected to, your translated brainwaves can now control anything electric. InteraXon designers and engineers make the experience so seamless, the connected technology seems like an extension of your own body.

It would be nice to have found a little more technical detail.

InteraXon is currently featuring its work at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (Canada) as an example of past work,

When visitors arrive at Bright Ideas, InteraXon’s thought-controlled computing experience custom designed and built for the 2010 Olympics, they are lead to their own pod. In front of each pod is a large projection screen as well as a small training screen. Once seated, a trained host hands them a headset that will measure their brain’s electrical signals.

With help from the host, the participants learn to deliberately alter their brainwaves. By focusing or relaxing their mind, they learn to change the display on their training screen; music and seat vibrations provide immediate feedback to speed the learning process to five minutes or less. Now they are ready for the main event.

Thoughts are turned into light patterns instantaneously as their brain’s digital signal is beamed over the Rocky Mountains, across vast prairies all the way to three major Ontario icons – a distance of 3000 km.

This project – a first at this grand scale – allows each participant to experience a very personal connection with these massive Ontario landmarks, and with every Canadian watching the lightshow, whether online, or in-person.

As for Muse, InteraXon’s latest project, the company has a campaign on Indiegogo to raise money. Here’s the video on the campaign website,

They seem very excited about it all, don’t they? The question that arises is whether or not you actually need a device to let you know when you’re concentrating or when your thoughts are wandering.  Apparently, the answer is yes. The campaign has raised over $240,000 (they asked for $150,000) and it’s open until Dec. 7, 2012.  If you go today, you will find that in addition to the other pledge inducements there’s a special ParisLeWeb $149 pledge for one day only (Dec. 5, 2012). Here’s where you go.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Spark radio programme featured an interview (either in Nov. or Dec. 2012) with Ariel Garten, Chief Executive Office of InteraXon discussing her company’s work. You can find podcast no. 197 here (it is approximately 55 mins. and there are other interviews bundled with Garten’s). Thanks to Richard Boyer for the tip about the Spark interview.

I have mentioned brain-computer interfaces previously. There’s the Brain-controlled robotic arm means drinking coffee by yourself for the first time in 15 years May 17, 2012 posting and the Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control Oct. 6, 2011 posting amongst others.

Plans to spend more on Canadian R&D in 2011

The Dec. 9, 2011 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News provides a hint of relief in what has become a rather dismal performance in industrial R&D spending. Canadian companies planned to spend more on R&D in 2011 than they had for years. From the news item,

Research and development spending by industry is expected to increase in 2011 — the first time in four years that has happened in Canada.

“The 2011 industrial R&D spending intentions suggest that recovery is underway after three consecutive years of declining R&D spending that occurred across almost all industrial sectors,” said a Statistics Canada report Friday.

If you look at the CBC’s news item today (Dec. 12, 2011), you’ll see this correction,

Canada’s R & D spending-to-GDP ratio in 2009 fell to the level it was in 1994, not 2004 as originally reported.

If I understand things correctly, there was a precipitous fall in 2009 and now in 2011, we’re enjoying a modest increase in plans for R&D spending.

From the Statistics Canada Daily, Dec. 9, 2011 issue,

2011 (intentions)

Businesses in Canada anticipated spending just over $15.6 billion on industrial research and development (R&D) in 2011, up 5.0% from 2010.

Almost half (49%) of this industrial R&D spending is anticipated to be spent in the manufacturing sector ($7.7 billion), an 8.0% increase from 2010. In 2011, about 43% of industrial R&D is anticipated to be spent in the services sector ($6.8 billion), up 3.1% from the previous year. The remaining 8% of R&D spending is anticipated to be spent in primary industries, utilities and construction.

The 2011 industrial R&D spending intentions suggest that recovery is underway after three consecutive years of declining R&D spending that occurred across almost all industrial sectors. However, total R&D spending intentions are still below the $16.8 billion spent in 2007. [emphasis mine]

You can read the bulletin and article,

The article, “Industrial research and development, 2007 to 2011,” is now available in the service bulletin Science Statistics, Vol. 35, no. 4 (88-001-X, free), from the Key resource module of our website under Publications.

Having seen some very questionable definitions of R&D, I checked one of the descriptions that Statistics Canada used, from the Data quality, concepts and methodology: Data quality, concepts and methodology page,

Generally speaking, industrial R&D is intended to result in an invention which may subsequently become a technological innovation. An essential requirement is that the outcome of the work is uncertain, i.e., that the possibility of obtaining a given technical objective cannot be known in advance on the basis of current knowledge or experience. Hence much of the work done by scientists and engineers is not R&D, since they are primarily engaged in “routine” production, engineering, quality control or testing. Although they apply scientific or engineering principles their work is not directed towards the discovery of new knowledge or the development of new products and processes. However, work elements which are not considered R&D by themselves but which directly support R&D projects, should be included with R&D in these cases. Examples of such work elements are design and engineering, shop work, computer programming, and secretarial work.

If the primary objective is to make further technical improvements to the product or process, then the work comes within the definition of R&D. If however, the product, process or approach is substantially set and the primary objective is to develop markets, to do pre-production planning or to get a production or control system working smoothly, then the activity can no longer be considered as part of R&D even though it could be regarded as an important part of the total innovation process. Thus, the design, construction and testing of prototypes, models and pilot plants are part of R&D. But, when necessary modifications have been made and testing has been satisfactorily completed, the boundary of R&D has been reached. Hence, the costs of tooling (design and try-out), construction drawings and manufacturing blueprints, and production start-up are not included in development costs.

Pilot plants may be included in development only if the main purpose is to acquire experience and compile data. As soon as they begin operating as normal production units, their costs can no longer be attributed to R&D. Similarly, once the original prototype has been found satisfactory, the cost of other “prototypes” built to meet a special need or fill a very small order are not to be considered as part of R&D.

Here’s what they specifically will not include,

Research and development should be considered to be “Scientific Research and Experimental Development” as defined in Section 37, Regulation 2900 of the Income Tax Act; this section specifically excludes the following:

  1. market research, sales promotion,
  2. quality control or routine analysis and testing of materials, devices or products,
  3. research in the social sciences or the humanities,
  4. prospecting, exploring or drilling for or producing minerals, petroleum or natural gas,
  5. the commercial production of a new or improved material, device or product or the commercial use of a new or improved process,
  6. style changes, or routine data collection

My fingers are crossed that these good intentions became reality.

Grey water and a short story from a GG winner

I mentioned Kate Pullinger when she won Canada’s 2009 Governor General’s (GG) award for fiction (Nov. 20, 2009 posting) and it seems a GG winner never gets to rest on her laurels. Last summer she was asked to write a short story celebrating the 75th anniversary of the GG awards. From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Canada Writes web space (from the Nov. 24, 2011 posting about Kate Pullinger’s story, Grey Water Lady),

Last summer, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Governor General’s Awards and the CBC, we asked ten GG-winning authors write a story about winter.

Kate Pullinger tells the story of a jet-lagged and heartbroken waste-water specialist who seeks to inject some colour back in her life.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Kate’s story,

Domestic grey water – the recycling of waste water from the bath, sink, shower, washing machine, etc – had become her area of expertise almost by default. In the industry she was known as Grey Water Lady. Fondly.  But still. She’d been flown over by the government to have a look at Melbourne’s controversial desalination plant project, but as soon as she got off the plane she realised the clothes she’d packed were completely inappropriate and that she’d have to wear everything in her suitcase all at the same time in order to stay warm.

In addition to writing a story, Kate was asked to do something else,

We asked Kate to recommend a writer who she thinks is not as well known as they deserve to be. Come back on Tuesday [Nov. 29, 2011] to find out who she has chosen as her writer to watch.

As for Canada Writes, here’s more from the About Us page,

Canada Writes is Canada’s home for original writing of all kinds, including the CBC Literary Prizes. It’s a meeting place for writers- a place where you come to showcase your work through an ongoing series of writing challenges and competitions, and a resource to help you connect with other writers across the country. We also feature original stories from writers across the country, editorials, writing news and recommendations and writing workshops.

It is also home to the CBC Short Story Prize, the CBC Poetry Prize and the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Kate now lives in the UK but was born in British Columbia and grew up on Vancouver Island.

Nanotechnology reaches its adolescence?

They (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], the American Chemical Society [ACS], and the Georgetown University Program on Science in the Public Interest) will be hosting a discussion, Nanotechnology in the 2010s: The Teen Years, on Nov. 21, 2011 in Washington, DC.

This is part of a series, Science & Society: Global Challenges, hosted at the AAAS auditorium at 1200 New York Avenue. The reception starts at 5 pm EST, and the discussion begins at 6:00 pm and finishes at 7:30 pm. You do need to RSVP if you are attending at the AAAS  ‘Global Challenges’ webpage, which specifies, No powerpoint. No notes. Just candid conversations …

I did get a copy of the media release from the ACS, which you can view here in the Nov. 15, 2011 news item on Nanowerk.

From the media release, here’s a list of the expert discussants,

Experts:   Pedro Alvarez, Department of Civil and
Environmental Engineering, Rice  University

                    Omid Farokhzad, Brigham and Women’s
Hospital, Harvard Medical School

                    Debra Kaiser, Ceramics Division, National
Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Host:         David Kestenbaum, NPR [National Public

Here are the questions they will be discussing (from the ACS media release),

Since the 1990s, nanotechnology has been lauded as the key to transforming a wide array of innovative fields from biomedicine and electronics to energy, textiles and transportation, inspiring the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000.

Now in the 2010s, is nanotechnology coming of age? Is the anticipated explosion of new products such as lighting, electronic displays, pharmaceuticals, solar photovoltaic cells and water treatment systems coming to fruition, or is NNI still in its research and development infancy? How should the United States allocate funds for research with such a strong potential to deliver economic innovations? These questions and others will be addressed Monday, Nov. 21, as part of the 2011 Science & Society: Global Challenges Discussion Series.

The ACS podcasts these discussions but you may have to wait a few weeks before viewing the nanotechnology discussion. The most recent available podcast of a Global Challenges discussion is the Oct. 3, 2011 discussion about Cyber Attack. The Oct. 24 discussion about Fukushima and the Nov. 7 discussion about Infectious Diseases have not been posted as of 11 am PST, Nov. 16, 2011.

Omid Farokhzad, one of the Global Challenges nanotechnology experts, was last mentioned on this blog in conjunction with a deal his companies (BIND and Selecta) made with RUSNANO (Russian Nanotechnologies Corporation) in my Oct. 28, 2011 posting. He was also featured in part 2 (More than Human, which is available for viewing online) of The Nano Revolution series broadcast, Oct. 20, 2011, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of The Nature of Things programming. I did comment on the episode in my Oct. 26, 2011 posting but did not mention Farokhzad.

Nature of Things’ series: The Nano Revolution (Episode 3); Will Nano Save the Planet?

I’m never thrilled with titles of this ilk, Will Nano Save the Planet? Refreshingly, this episode featured some work being done by Canadian scientists (two of them) although the average Canadian could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the only nanotechnology research taking place in Canada.

It’s a little puzzling that they chose this final episode for a description of the term nanoscale. David Suzuki, the host, mentioned the ridges of skin on your fingers and noted that a nanoparticle is 80,000 times smaller than the distance between the ridges. (If you want a really good description of scale, I recommend listening to Professor Ravi Silva’s audio interview with Alok Jha on the (UK) Guardian’s Oct. 14, 2011 Science Weekly podcast.)

In general, I found the descriptions of the science in this episode were not of the same standard as the previous two, which were very good.

The vignettes, as always, were problematic largely since they were internal monologues of some character who’s grappling with ethical issues and other social impacts of these technologies. Interestingly, men starred in the vignettes where the ‘big’ issues are covered: ethics of health care; longer life; access to energy sources; pollution from nanotechnology-enabled products; etc. The woman who starred in the vignettes from episode one (as I noted in my review) was concerned with cleanliness, tidiness, shopping, and privacy. I guess things don’t change that much in our future, especially in 2050 where nanotechnology protestors are putting up banners, spraypainting, and leafletting (almost as if it were 1968) to express their opposition (in episode three).

There was some interesting work being covered. They profiled Professor Ted Sargent, based at the University of Toronto, who’s doing some exciting work with solar cells (he wants to make them flexible and, even, paintable). His latest breakthrough is mentioned in my Sept. 20, 2011 posting.

Professor Vicki Colvin, Rice University in Texas, is working to purify water. The project is in Mexico and highlights the difficulties when water supplies are contaminated, in this case, with arsenic. (Here in the Pacific Northwest we tend to forget that access to fresh clean water is not easy in many parts of the world.) Colvin and her colleagues are working on a simple solution that can be implemented with some sand, gravel, a tube, and active nanoparticles. (Her work with the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative; a UK/US collaboration was mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.)

The third project was focussed on soil remediation and a team from the University of Western Ontario headed by Professor Dennis O’Carroll. I have not come across O’Carroll’s work previously so this was a find for me. As you may or may not know, there are many sites with contaminated soil throughout North America and elsewhere. If successful, O’Carroll’s technique promises to remediate (rehabiltate) the soil without having to move massive amounts of soil and use big  equipment.

This episode featured more discussion about the risks and uncertainties associated with nanotechnology and its use. Unfortunately, I did not recognize the names and (one of my major pet peeves with this series) they either didn’t write out the names on screen or they flashed them briefly which meant that unless I recognized the names it was difficult to find out more about the experts.

I did recognize the mesocosm project at Duke University, which was featured here in my August 15, 2011 posting. The researchers are trying to understand what impact silver nanoparticles have on life. They spray silver nanoparticles in various mesocosms (they look like raised plant beds) and then track what happens to the plant, the soil, and the water supply as the silver nanoparticles cycle through.

There’s work in the UK examining air and the nanoparticles released through the use of internal combustion engines (cars/trucks) as well as our newly engineered nanoparticles. I’m glad to see this material in the episode, perhaps it will finally motivate some public discussion in Canada.

Commercializing nano: US, Spain, and RUSNANO

Late September 2011 saw the Nanomanufacturing Summit 2011 and 10th Annual NanoBusiness conference take place in Boston, Massachusetts (my Sept. 21, 2011 posting). Dr. Scott Rickert (President and CEO of Nanofilm) writing for Industry Week noted this about the events in his Oct. 14, 2011 posting,

I witnessed an American revolution catch fire in Boston, and I feel like a latter-day Paul Revere. “The nanotech economy is coming, the nanotech economy is coming!” and that’s good news for the U.S. — and you — because we’re at the epicenter.

Let’s start with commercialization. Ten years ago, when I walked into the inaugural version of this conference, I was one of the few with money-making nanotechnology products on the market. This time? The sessions were packed with executives from multi-million dollar businesses, and the chatter was about P&L as much as R&D. Nano-companies are defying Wall Street woes and going public. And even academics were talking about business plans, not prototypes.

Dozens of companies from Europe, Asia and the Middle East were at the conference. Their goal was tapping into the American know-how for making science into business.

Seems a little euphoric, doesn’t he? It’s understandable for anyone who’s worked long and hard at an activity that’s considered obscure by great swathes of the population and finally begins to see substantive response. (Sidebar: Note the revolutionary references for a conference taking place in what’s considered the birthplace of the American Revolution.)

Speakers at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Nanotechnology) EmTech event held in Spain on Oct. 26-27, 2011 were are a bit more measured, excerpted from the Oct. 27, 2011 posting featuring highlights from the conference by Cal Pierce for Opinno,

Javier García Martínez, founder of Rive Technology and Tim Harper, founder of Cientifica.com presented their view of how nanotechnology will transform our world.

Harper took the stage first.

“We have spent $67 billion on nanotechnology research this decade, so you can imagine this must be an important field,” he said.

Harper believes that nanotechnology is the most important technology that humans have developed in the past 5,000 years. However, he spoke about the difficulties in developing nanotechnology machinery in that we cannot simply shrink factories down to nano-scales. Rather, Harper said we need to look to cells in nature as they have been using nanotechnology for billions of years.


Harper spoke about the dire need to use nanotechnology to develop processes that replace scarce resources. However, the current economic climate is hindering these critical innovations.

Javier Garcia then spoke.

“Graphene, diamond and other carbon structures are the future of 21st-century nanotechnology,” he said.

Garcia says that the next challenge is commercialization. There are thousands of scientific articles about nanotechnology published every year which are followed by many patents, he explained. However, he reflected on Cook’s ideas about funding.

“There is still not a nanotechnology industry like there is for biotechnology,” he said.

Finally, Garcia said successful nanotechnology companies need to build strong partnerships, have strong intellectual property rights and create a healthy balance between creativity and focus. Government will also play a role with simplified bureaucracy and tax credits.

Hang on, it gets a little more confusing when you add in the news from Russia (from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 26, 2011 posting titled, Russia Claims Revenues of One-Third-of–a-Billion Dollars in Nanotech This Year on his Nanoclast blog on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering [IEEE] website),

One of the first bits of interesting news to come out of the meeting is that: “In 2011, Rusnano has earned about 10 billion rubles ($312 million) on manufacturing products using nanotechnology — nearly half of the state corporation’s total turnover.”

We should expect these estimates to be fairly conservative, however, ever since Anatoly Chubais, RusNano’s chief, got fed up with bogus market numbers he was seeing and decided that RusNano was going to track its own development.

I have to say though, no matter how you look at it, over $300 million in revenues is pretty impressive for a project that has really only existed for three years.

Then RUSNANO announced its investments in Selecta Biosciences and BIND Biosiences, from the Oct. 27, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

BIND Biosciences and Selecta Biosciences, two leading nanomedicine companies, announced today that they have entered into investment agreements with RUSNANO, a $10-billion Russian Federation fund that supports high-tech and nanotechnology advances.

RUSNANO is co-investing $25 million in BIND and $25 million in Selecta, for a total RUSNANO investment of $50 million within the total financing rounds of $94.5 million in the two companies combined. …

The proprietary technology platforms of BIND and Selecta originated in laboratories at Harvard Medical School directed by Professor Omid Farokhzad, MD, and in laboratories at MIT directed by Professor Robert Langer, ScD, a renowned scientist who is a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the highest US honor for scientists, and is an inventor of approximately 850 patents issued or pending worldwide. Drs. Langer and Farokhzad are founders of both companies. [Farokhzad was featured in a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation {CBC}, Nature of Things, television episode about nanomedicine, titled More than human.] Professor Ulrich von Andrian, MD, PhD, head of the immunopathology laboratory at Harvard Medical School, is a founder of Selecta.

Selecta pioneers new approaches for synthetically engineered vaccines and immunotherapies. Selecta’s lead drug candidate, SEL-068, is entering human clinical studies as a vaccine for smoking cessation and relapse prevention. Other drug development programs include universal human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, universal influenza vaccine, malaria vaccine, and type 1 diabetes therapeutic vaccine.

BIND develops targeted therapeutics, called Accurins™, that selectively accumulate at the site of disease to dramatically enhance effectiveness for treating cancer and other diseases. BIND’s lead candidate, BIND-014, is in human clinical trials as a targeted therapy for cancer treatment. BIND’s development pipeline also includes a range of cancer treatments and drugs for anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular conditions.

Here’s an excerpt from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 28, 2011 posting where he muses on this development,

It seems the last decade of the US—along with parts of Europe and Asia—pouring money into nanotechnology research, which led to a few fledgling nanotechnology-based businesses, is finally paying off…for Russia.

In the case of these two companies, I really don’t know to what extent their initial technology was funded or supported by the US government and I wouldn’t begrudge them a bit if it was significant. Businesses need capital just to get to production and then later to expand. It hardly matters where it comes from as long as they can survive another day.

Dexter goes on to note that RUSNANO is not the only organization investing major money to bring nanotechnology-enabled products to the next stage of commercialization; this is happening internationally.

Meanwhile, Justin Varilek posts this (Nanotech Enthusiasm Peaks) for the Moscow Times on Oct. 28, 2011,

In nanotechnology, size matters. But federal funding for the high-tech field has tapered off in Russia, flattening out at $1.88 billion per year through 2015 and losing ground in the race against the United States and Germany.

If this were a horse race, nanotechnology-enabled products are in the final stretches toward the finish line (commercialization) and it’s still anyone’s horse race.

Note: I didn’t want to interrupt the flow earlier to include this link to the EmTech conference in Spain. And, I did post a review (Oct. 26, 2011) of More than Human, which did not mention Farokhzad by name, the second episode in a special three-part series being broadcast as part of the Nature of Things series on CBC.

Nature of Things’ The Nano Revolution part 2: More than Human

More than Human (the episode can be seen here), part of 2 of a special Nature of Things series, The Nano Revolution, was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 20, 2011; one might be forgiven for thinking this episode concerned robots but that wasn’t the case.  The focus was on nanomedicine, specifically cancer and aging, along with a few scenarios hinting at social impacts of the ‘new’ medicine.

This episode, like the last one (Welcome to Nano City), presents the science in an understandable fashion without overexplaining basic concepts. A skill I much appreciate since watching a video of an engineer explain at length that the eye has a cornea and a retina to an audience of adults who were attending a talk about retinal implants.

More coherent than the first one, (Welcome to Nano City reviewed in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting), which featured three topics (one was totally unrelated to any city) both episodes,  convey excitement about the possibilities being suggested by nanotechnology.

As for this episode, More than human, it certainly told a compelling story of a future where there will be no cancer (or it will be easily treated if it does occur) and we won’t age as we can make perfect tissues to replace whatever has been broken. There were also hints of a few social issues as illustrated by future oriented vignettes interspersed through the programme.

I want to c0mmend the script writer for pulling together a story using disparate materials and videos (which I’m guessing are being repurposed, i.e., created for broadcast elsewhere and reused here). Given the broad range of nanomedicine research worldwide, this was a very difficult job.

Featured at some length was Dr. Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Here’s a description from Mirkin’s profile page on the Mirkin Group webspace,

Professor Mirkin is a chemist and a world renowned nanoscience expert, who is known for his development of nanoparticle-based biodetection schemes, the invention of Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and contributions to supramolecular chemistry, nanoelectronics, and nanooptics. [emphasis mine] He is the author of over 430 manuscripts and over 370 patents and applications, and the founder of three companies, Nanosphere, NanoInk, and Aurasense which are commercializing nanotechnology applications in the life science and semiconductor industries. Currently, he is listed as the most cited (based on total citations) chemist in the world with the second highest impact factor and the top most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. At present, he is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.

Mirkin talked extensively about his work on biomarker sensing and its applications for diagnostic procedures that cut laboratory testing down from weeks to hours. This new equipment arising from Mirkin’s work is installed in some US hospital laboratories.

Dr. Silvano Dragonieri of Leiden University in The Netherlands discussed his e-nose technology which offers another approach to diagnostics. Here’s a description of Dragonieri’s (and another team’s) work in this area from an April 27, 2009 news item on physorg.com,

In 2006 researchers established that dogs could detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. Now, using nanoscale arrays of detectors, two groups of investigators have shown that a compact mechanical device also can sniff out lung cancer in humans.

Hossam Haick, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, used a network of 10 sets of chemically modified carbon nanotubes to create a multicomponent sensor capable of discriminating between a healthy breath and one characteristic of lung cancer patients. This work appears in the journal Nano News. Meanwhile, Silvano Dragonieri, M.D., University of Bari, Italy, and his colleagues used a commercial nanoarray-based electronic “nose” to discriminate between the breath of patients with non-small cell lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These results appear in the journal Lung Cancer. [emphasis mine]

Nanomedicine is fascinating, which is why it’s easy to lose perspective. Thankfully there was Dr. Philip Kantoff  (also very enthused and a major figure in this area) to provide the voice of reason. Here’s more are about Kantoff from the profile page on the WEBMD website,

Dr. Kantoff has published more than 100 research articles on a variety of topics, including the molecular basis of genitourinary cancers and improved treatments for patients afflicted with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and testicular cancer. His laboratory research involves understanding the genetics of prostate cancer. His clinical research involves clinical trials of novel therapeutic treatments for the genitourinary cancers. He teaches at Harvard Medical School, and lectures internationally to both medical and lay audiences. Dr. Kantoff has written nearly 100 reviews and monographs on cancer and has edited numerous books, including Prostate Cancer, A Multi-Disciplinary Guide published by Blackwell, and Prostate Cancer: Principles and Practice, a definitive text on prostate cancer, published in December 2001 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. He has also written a popular book, Prostate Cancer, a Family Consultation, published by Houghton Mifflin.

As Kantoff counsels against over-hyping he notes that much of the work in the area of nanomedicine is in the laboratory; there are still animal trials and human clinical trials to be convened for further testing.

Building on Kantoff’s observations: let’s consider the difference between research and clinical practice. Even after the human clinical trials have taken place, there’s still uncertainty about how this new procedure or medication, no matter how personalized, will affect an individual. Would aspirin be available over-the-counter today if we’d known all of the side effects which many people suffer from? No, not a chance. How long did it take to find out that aspirin was a problem? Several years.

The idea that this new ‘personalized’ medicine that Mirkin refers to will provide a perfect solution to any disease is based on the belief that we understand disease processes. We do not. Yes, we’ve catalogued any number of genomes, etc. but at least one question remains. Why do some people who have one or more biomarker for a disease never experience it while others with fewer biomarkers do?

While that question wasn’t raised in the episode I was impressed with the fact that they did mention patent issues (innovation and, in this care, care can be stifled by patents and this seems to be increasingly the case); some larger philosophical issues, just how long do you want to live?, and who gets to enjoy these new benefits (if  such they be)?

I do have a few quibbles, there was no Canadian content other than David Suzuki reading a script as narration for the episode (this was true of the first episode too). The title, More than human, suggests not just robots but human enhancement too and that topic was barely discussed.

In future, I’d like to suggest a little more humility in programmes about nanotechnology. I found the constant references to ‘controlling’ atoms, matter, disease, etc. to be disconcerting. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t control an atom, we try to understand it and based on that understanding find better ways to exist in this universe.

Report on Review of Federal Support to R&D

It (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action) [ETA Oct. 25, 2011: Title corrected] is not a light read (it weighs in at 148 pp.) as one might expect when a comprehensive review of government programmes is made and given the pace that major reports are being released these days I’ve not had a chance to even skim through the report itself. However, there are some major recommendations being made, notably this one about the National Research Council (from the Review of Federal Support to R&D home page),

  • Transform the institutes of the National Research Council [NRC] into a series of large-scale, collaborative centres involving business, universities and the provinces.
  • The NRC was created during World War I to kick-start Canada’s research capacity. It has a long and storied history of discoveries and innovation, including numerous commercial spin-offs. While the NRC continues to do good work, research and commercialization activity in Canada has grown immensely.  In this new context, the NRC can play a unique role, linking its large-scale, long-term research activity with the academic and business communities. The panel recommends evolving NRC institutes, consistent with the current strategic direction, into not-for-profit centres run with stakeholders, and incorporating its public policy research into other departments.

The panel also suggests cutting down on the number of funding agencies and creating a portal or ‘concierge’ to help businesses find the right funding solution for their needs,

  • The creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs.
    • There are currently more than 60 programs across 17 different government departments. The creation of an arm’s-length funding and delivery agency – the Industrial Research and Innovation Council – would begin to streamline the process as the development of a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs (a “concierge”).

This next one seems more like a ‘buy Canada’ recommendation than anything else,

  • Make business innovation one of the core objectives of procurement.
    • The federal government spends billions of dollars every year but it ranks low internationally when it comes to using that purchasing power to encourage Canadian innovation. The encouragement of home-grown innovation a part of government procurement is commonsense.

I like this idea,

  • Help high-growth innovative firms access the risk capital they need through the Business Development Bank of Canada
    • Innovative Canadian companies face real challenges in getting start-up funding and late stage risk capital financing. In many cases, the gap is filled by foreign investors, which means that too many commercial benefits and intellectual property end up leaving the country. Directing the BDC to work with angel investor groups and develop late-stage risk capital/growth equity funds will pay dividends.

Simplifying certainly seems reasonable,

 ·Simplification of the tax credit system used to support small and medium-sized businesses.

  • The current Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) program is unnecessarily complicated: many small businesses hire consultants just to submit an application. This discourages eligible businesses from applying and may cost successful small SR&ED recipients a good portion of the credit received. By basing the SR&ED credit  solely on labour costs, the panel believes SR&ED will be more effective.

This one seems like one of those recommendations that are impossible to implement,

·Establish a clear federal voice for innovation and work with the provinces to improve coordination.

  • Currently, there is a lack of government-wide clarity when it comes to innovation. Responsibility is spread across a number of cabinet portfolios. The Prime Minister should assign responsibility for innovation to a single minister, supported by a whole-of-government Innovation Advisory Committee, evolved from the current Science Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), composed of external stakeholders, who would then work with the provincial and territorial governments to initiate a collaborative dialogue to improve coordination and impact.

I base my comment about the last recommendation on my experience with the gnashing of teeth I’ve observed when someone is going to lose an area of responsibility that is associated with power and other good things. Who do you imagine will want to give up innovation and what will they want in return?  Another question which springs to mind is this one: How are they going to develop a single voice for discussion of innovation across several federal bureaucracies with thousands of people and miles between them when even a small office of 20 people experiences difficulty doing this (again, this is based on my personal experience).

As for the suggested changes to the NRC? Well, those should provide some fodder for lively discussion. I’m sure the other items will provide conversational fodder too but it seems to me that the two I’ve highlighted in these comments are likely to be the among the most contentious.

Hannah Hoag in her Oct. 14, 2011 posting on the Nature news blog notes this,

  In an effort to address Canada’s problem with innovation, an independent panel has recommended a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council (NRC).

Study after study has shown that Canada’s businesses invest less on R&D, relative to the country’s gross domestic product, than those of many other OECD countries and, unlike others, has actually decreased its spending over the last decade. Many of these business investments include government support in the form tax credits, training programs, or grants. [emphasis mine]

In an effort to make the best use of the government’s investments the six-member expertpanel developed six broad recommendations include appointing a Minister of Innovation and creating the Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC).

Laura Payton writes in her Oct. 17, 2011 article for CBC news,

Canada’s research and development funding system is too complicated and confusing, a government-appointed panel [for the Review of Federal Support to R&D] said Monday.

Creating a new arm’s-length funding agency and putting a single cabinet minister in charge of innovation would streamline the application process and give the government a clear voice on the issue, Tom Jenkins, the panel’s chair said.

The idea is to cut red tape and make it easier for companies to get access to cash and increase collaboration.

“Going forward, more of the world’s innovations may well happen elsewhere, outside of Canada,” warned Jenkins, executive chairman and chief strategy officer of Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp.

“Governments in Canada spend more on supporting business R&D per capita than most countries in the industrialized world. And yet, we’re increasingly near the bottom of the pack when it comes to investing in business innovation. So if it’s not a lack of government investment, then why has our business R&D momentum been stalled for almost a decade?”

Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, said business investment and R&D help create high-paying, high-value jobs and maintain Canada’s standard of living.

Of course, none of the recommendations in the report from the expert panel address the core problem of Canadian businesses not investing in themselves. It simply wasn’t part of the brief and the title seems a little grandiose. Perhaps Government funding for innovation in Canada: A Call to Action might have been a better title.

While I think this review was an excellent exercise I am dismayed that one of the core problems (business investment) with innovation in Canada has not been addressed.

  • Help high-growth innovative firms access the risk capital they need through the Business Development Bank of Canada
    • Innovative Canadian companies face real challenges in getting start-up funding and late stage risk capital financing. In many cases, the gap is filled by foreign investors, which means that too many commercial benefits and intellectual property end up leaving the country. Directing the BDC to work with angel investor groups and develop late-stage risk capital/growth equity funds will pay dividends.