Tag Archives: Harvard Medical School

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

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

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

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

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

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].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the butterflies of the soul

The Cajal exhibit of drawings was here in Vancouver (Canada) this last fall (2017) and I still carry the memory of that glorious experience (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting for more about the show and associated events). It seems Cajal’s drawings had a similar response in New York city, from a January 18, 2018 article by Roberta Smith for the New York Times,

It’s not often that you look at an exhibition with the help of the very apparatus that is its subject. But so it is with “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.

The show finished its run on March 31, 2018 and is now on its way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Massachusetts for its opening on May 3, 2018. It looks like they have an exciting lineup of events to go along with the exhibit (from MIT’s The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal exhibit and event page),

SUMMER PROGRAMS

ONGOING

Spotlight Tours
Explorations led by local and Spanish scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs who will share their unique perspectives on particular aspects of the exhibition. (2:00 pm on select Tuesdays and Saturdays)

Tue, May 8 – Mark Harnett, Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Professor at MIT and McGovern Institute Investigator Sat, May 26 – Marion Boulicault, MIT Graduate Student and Neuroethics Fellow in the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering Tue, June 5 – Kelsey Allen, Graduate researcher, MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines Sat, Jun 23 – Francisco Martin-Martinez, Research Scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Atomistic & Molecular Mechanics and President of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology Jul 21 – Alex Gomez-Marin, Principal Investigator of the Behavior of Organisms Laboratory in the Instituto de Neurociencias, Spain Tue, Jul 31– Julie Pryor, Director of Communications at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT Tue, Aug 28 – Satrajit Ghosh, Principal Research Scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, and faculty member in the Speech and Hearing Biosciences and Technology program in the Harvard Division of Medical Sciences

Idea Hub
Drop in and explore expansion microscopy in our maker-space.

Visualizing Science Workshop
Experiential learning with micro-scale biological images. (pre-registration required)

Gallery Demonstrations
Researchers share the latest on neural anatomy, signal transmission, and modern imaging techniques.

EVENTS

Teen Science Café: Mindful Matters
MIT researchers studying the brain share their mind-blowing findings.

Neuron Paint Night
Create a painting of cerebral cortex neurons and learn about the EyeWire citizen science game.

Cerebral Cinema Series
Hear from researchers and then compare real science to depictions on the big screen.

Brainy Trivia
Test your brain power in a night of science trivia and short, snappy research talks.

Come back to see our exciting lineup for the fall!

If you don’t have a chance to see the show or if you’d like a preview, I encourage you to read Smith’s article as it has embedded several Cajal drawings and rendered them exceptionally well.

For those who like a little contemporary (and related) science with their art, there’s a March 30, 2018 Harvard Medical Schoo (HMS)l news release by Kevin Jang (also on EurekAlert), Note: All links save one have been removed,

Drawing of the cells of the chick cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, from “Estructura de los centros nerviosos de las aves,” Madrid, circa 1905

 

Modern neuroscience, for all its complexity, can trace its roots directly to a series of pen-and-paper sketches rendered by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His observations and drawings exposed the previously hidden composition of the brain, revealing neuronal cell bodies and delicate projections that connect individual neurons together into intricate networks.

As he explored the nervous systems of various organisms under his microscope, a natural question arose: What makes a human brain different from the brain of any other species?

At least part of the answer, Ramón y Cajal hypothesized, lay in a specific class of neuron—one found in a dazzling variety of shapes and patterns of connectivity, and present in higher proportions in the human brain than in the brains of other species. He dubbed them the “butterflies of the soul.”

Known as interneurons, these cells play critical roles in transmitting information between sensory and motor neurons, and, when defective, have been linked to diseases such as schizophrenia, autism and intellectual disability.

Despite more than a century of study, however, it remains unclear why interneurons are so diverse and what specific functions the different subtypes carry out.

Now, in a study published in the March 22 [2018] issue of Nature, researchers from Harvard Medical School, New York Genome Center, New York University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have detailed for the first time how interneurons emerge and diversify in the brain.

Using single-cell analysis—a technology that allows scientists to track cellular behavior one cell at a time—the team traced the lineage of interneurons from their earliest precursor states to their mature forms in mice. The researchers identified key genetic programs that determine the fate of developing interneurons, as well as when these programs are switched on or off.

The findings serve as a guide for efforts to shed light on interneuron function and may help inform new treatment strategies for disorders involving their dysfunction, the authors said.

“We knew more than 100 years ago that this huge diversity of morphologically interesting cells existed in the brain, but their specific individual roles in brain function are still largely unclear,” said co-senior author Gordon Fishell, HMS professor of neurobiology and a faculty member at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad.

“Our study provides a road map for understanding how and when distinct interneuron subtypes develop, giving us unprecedented insight into the biology of these cells,” he said. “We can now investigate interneuron properties as they emerge, unlock how these important cells function and perhaps even intervene when they fail to develop correctly in neuropsychiatric disease.”

A hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative CommonsA hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative Commons

Origins and Fates

In collaboration with co-senior author Rahul Satija, core faculty member of the New York Genome Center, Fishell and colleagues analyzed brain regions in developing mice known to contain precursor cells that give rise to interneurons.

Using Drop-seq, a single-cell sequencing technique created by researchers at HMS and the Broad, the team profiled gene expression in thousands of individual cells at multiple time points.

This approach overcomes a major limitation in past research, which could analyze only the average activity of mixtures of many different cells.

In the current study, the team found that the precursor state of all interneurons had similar gene expression patterns despite originating in three separate brain regions and giving rise to 14 or more interneuron subtypes alone—a number still under debate as researchers learn more about these cells.

“Mature interneuron subtypes exhibit incredible diversity. Their morphology and patterns of connectivity and activity are so different from each other, but our results show that the first steps in their maturation are remarkably similar,” said Satija, who is also an assistant professor of biology at New York University.

“They share a common developmental trajectory at the earliest stages, but the seeds of what will cause them to diverge later—a handful of genes—are present from the beginning,” Satija said.

As they profiled cells at later stages in development, the team observed the initial emergence of four interneuron “cardinal” classes, which give rise to distinct fates. Cells were committed to these fates even in the early embryo. By developing a novel computational strategy to link precursors with adult subtypes, the researchers identified individual genes that were switched on and off when cells began to diversify.

For example, they found that the gene Mef2c—mutations of which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and neurodevelopmental disorders in humans—is an early embryonic marker for a specific interneuron subtype known as Pvalb neurons. When they deleted Mef2c in animal models, Pvalb neurons failed to develop.

These early genes likely orchestrate the execution of subsequent genetic subroutines, such as ones that guide interneuron subtypes as they migrate to different locations in the brain and ones that help form unique connection patterns with other neural cell types, the authors said.

The identification of these genes and their temporal activity now provide researchers with specific targets to investigate the precise functions of interneurons, as well as how neurons diversify in general, according to the authors.

“One of the goals of this project was to address an incredibly fascinating developmental biology question, which is how individual progenitor cells decide between different neuronal fates,” Satija said. “In addition to these early markers of interneuron divergence, we found numerous additional genes that increase in expression, many dramatically, at later time points.”

The association of some of these genes with neuropsychiatric diseases promises to provide a better understanding of these disorders and the development of therapeutic strategies to treat them, a particularly important notion given the paucity of new treatments, the authors said.

Over the past 50 years, there have been no fundamentally new classes of neuropsychiatric drugs, only newer versions of old drugs, the researchers pointed out.

“Our repertoire is no better than it was in the 1970s,” Fishell said.

“Neuropsychiatric diseases likely reflect the dysfunction of very specific cell types. Our study puts forward a clear picture of what cells to look at as we work to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie these disorders,” Fishell said. “What we will find remains to be seen, but we have new, strong hypotheses that we can now test.”

As a resource for the research community, the study data and software are open-source and freely accessible online.

A gallery of the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is currently on display in New York City, and will open at the MIT Museum in Boston in May 2018.

Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister and Rachel Bandler served as co-lead authors on the study.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 NS074972, R01 NS081297, MH071679-12, DP2-HG-009623, F30MH114462, T32GM007308, F31NS103398), the European Molecular Biology Organization, the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

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

Developmental diversification of cortical inhibitory interneurons by Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister, Rachel C. Bandler, Robert Machold, Renata Batista Brito, Xavier Jaglin, Kathryn Allaway, Andrew Butler, Gord Fishell, & Rahul Satija. Nature volume 555, pages 457–462 (22 March 2018) doi:10.1038/nature25999 Published: 05 March 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (1 of 2)

Before launching into the assessment, a brief explanation of my theme: Hedy Lamarr was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day,

“Ziegfeld Girl” Hedy Lamarr 1941 MGM *M.V.
Titles: Ziegfeld Girl
People: Hedy Lamarr
Image courtesy mptvimages.com [downloaded from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034415/mediaviewer/rm1566611456]

Aside from starring in Hollywood movies and, before that, movies in Europe, she was also an inventor and not just any inventor (from a Dec. 4, 2017 article by Laura Barnett for The Guardian), Note: Links have been removed,

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Not only did the Vienna-born actor flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, and become (probably) the first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen – she also took time out to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise mobile communications.

As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system”. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

(The article goes on to mention other celebrities [Marlon Brando, Barbara Cartland, Mark Twain, etc] and their inventions.)

Lamarr’s work as an inventor was largely overlooked until the 1990’s when the technology community turned her into a ‘cultish’ favourite and from there her reputation grew and acknowledgement increased culminating in Rhodes’ book and the documentary by Alexandra Dean, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (to be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Masters series on May 18, 2018).

Canada as Hedy Lamarr

There are some parallels to be drawn between Canada’s S&T and R&D (science and technology; research and development) and Ms. Lamarr. Chief amongst them, we’re not always appreciated for our brains. Not even by people who are supposed to know better such as the experts on the panel for the ‘Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada’ (proper title: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) from the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.

A little history

Before exploring the comparison to Hedy Lamarr further, here’s a bit more about the history of this latest assessment from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), from the report released April 10, 2018,

This assessment of Canada’s performance indicators in science, technology, research, and innovation comes at an opportune time. The Government of Canada has expressed a renewed commitment in several tangible ways to this broad domain of activity including its Innovation and Skills Plan, the announcement of five superclusters, its appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor, and its request for the Fundamental Science Review. More specifically, the 2018 Federal Budget demonstrated the government’s strong commitment to research and innovation with historic investments in science.

The CCA has a decade-long history of conducting evidence-based assessments about Canada’s research and development activities, producing seven assessments of relevance:

The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2006) [emphasis mine]
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (2009)
•Catalyzing Canada’s Digital Economy (2010)
•Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment (2012)
The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) [emphasis mine]
The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013) [emphasis mine]
•Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness (2013)

Using similar methods and metrics to those in The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) and The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013), this assessment tells a similar and familiar story: Canada has much to be proud of, with world-class researchers in many domains of knowledge, but the rest of the world is not standing still. Our peers are also producing high quality results, and many countries are making significant commitments to supporting research and development that will position them to better leverage their strengths to compete globally. Canada will need to take notice as it determines how best to take action. This assessment provides valuable material for that conversation to occur, whether it takes place in the lab or the legislature, the bench or the boardroom. We also hope it will be used to inform public discussion. [p. ix Print, p. 11 PDF]

This latest assessment succeeds the general 2006 and 2012 reports, which were mostly focused on academic research, and combines it with an assessment of industrial research, which was previously separate. Also, this third assessment’s title (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) makes what was previously quietly declared in the text, explicit from the cover onwards. It’s all about competition, despite noises such as the 2017 Naylor report (Review of fundamental research) about the importance of fundamental research.

One other quick comment, I did wonder in my July 1, 2016 posting (featuring the announcement of the third assessment) how combining two assessments would impact the size of the expert panel and the size of the final report,

Given the size of the 2012 assessment of science and technology at 232 pp. (PDF) and the 2013 assessment of industrial research and development at 220 pp. (PDF) with two expert panels, the imagination boggles at the potential size of the 2016 expert panel and of the 2016 assessment combining the two areas.

I got my answer with regard to the panel as noted in my Oct. 20, 2016 update (which featured a list of the members),

A few observations, given the size of the task, this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

The imbalance I noted then was addressed, somewhat, with the selection of the reviewers (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The CCA wishes to thank the following individuals for their review of this report:

Ronald Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., RCA, Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des
lettres, President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design
(Vancouver, BC)

Michelle N. Chretien, Director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design
Technologies, Sheridan College; Former Program and Business Development
Manager, Electronic Materials, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (Brampton,
ON)

Lisa Crossley, CEO, Reliq Health Technologies, Inc. (Ancaster, ON)
Natalie Dakers, Founding President and CEO, Accel-Rx Health Sciences
Accelerator (Vancouver, BC)

Fred Gault, Professorial Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT (Maastricht,
Netherlands)

Patrick D. Germain, Principal Engineering Specialist, Advanced Aerodynamics,
Bombardier Aerospace (Montréal, QC)

Robert Brian Haynes, O.C., FRSC, FCAHS, Professor Emeritus, DeGroote
School of Medicine, McMaster University (Hamilton, ON)

Susan Holt, Chief, Innovation and Business Relationships, Government of
New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB)

Pierre A. Mohnen, Professor, United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht
University (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Peter J. M. Nicholson, C.M., Retired; Former and Founding President and
CEO, Council of Canadian Academies (Annapolis Royal, NS)

Raymond G. Siemens, Distinguished Professor, English and Computer Science
and Former Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, University of
Victoria (Victoria, BC) [pp. xii- xiv Print; pp. 15-16 PDF]

The proportion of women to men as reviewers jumped up to about 36% (4 of 11 reviewers) and there are two reviewers from the Maritime provinces. As usual, reviewers external to Canada were from Europe. Although this time, they came from Dutch institutions rather than UK or German institutions. Interestingly and unusually, there was no one from a US institution. When will they start using reviewers from other parts of the world?

As for the report itself, it is 244 pp. (PDF). (For the really curious, I have a  December 15, 2016 post featuring my comments on the preliminary data for the third assessment.)

To sum up, they had a lean expert panel tasked with bringing together two inquiries and two reports. I imagine that was daunting. Good on them for finding a way to make it manageable.

Bibliometrics, patents, and a survey

I wish more attention had been paid to some of the issues around open science, open access, and open data, which are changing how science is being conducted. (I have more about this from an April 5, 2018 article by James Somers for The Atlantic but more about that later.) If I understand rightly, they may not have been possible due to the nature of the questions posed by the government when requested the assessment.

As was done for the second assessment, there is an acknowledgement that the standard measures/metrics (bibliometrics [no. of papers published, which journals published them; number of times papers were cited] and technometrics [no. of patent applications, etc.] of scientific accomplishment and progress are not the best and new approaches need to be developed and adopted (from the report released April 10, 2018),

It is also worth noting that the Panel itself recognized the limits that come from using traditional historic metrics. Additional approaches will be needed the next time this assessment is done. [p. ix Print; p. 11 PDF]

For the second assessment and as a means of addressing some of the problems with metrics, the panel decided to take a survey which the panel for the third assessment has also done (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The Panel relied on evidence from multiple sources to address its charge, including a literature review and data extracted from statistical agencies and organizations such as Statistics Canada and the OECD. For international comparisons, the Panel focused on OECD countries along with developing countries that are among the top 20 producers of peer-reviewed research publications (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Turkey). In addition to the literature review, two primary research approaches informed the Panel’s assessment:
•a comprehensive bibliometric and technometric analysis of Canadian research publications and patents; and,
•a survey of top-cited researchers around the world.

Despite best efforts to collect and analyze up-to-date information, one of the Panel’s findings is that data limitations continue to constrain the assessment of R&D activity and excellence in Canada. This is particularly the case with industrial R&D and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Data on industrial R&D activity continue to suffer from time lags for some measures, such as internationally comparable data on R&D intensity by sector and industry. These data also rely on industrial categories (i.e., NAICS and ISIC codes) that can obscure important trends, particularly in the services sector, though Statistics Canada’s recent revisions to how this data is reported have improved this situation. There is also a lack of internationally comparable metrics relating to R&D outcomes and impacts, aside from those based on patents.

For the social sciences, arts, and humanities, metrics based on journal articles and other indexed publications provide an incomplete and uneven picture of research contributions. The expansion of bibliometric databases and methodological improvements such as greater use of web-based metrics, including paper views/downloads and social media references, will support ongoing, incremental improvements in the availability and accuracy of data. However, future assessments of R&D in Canada may benefit from more substantive integration of expert review, capable of factoring in different types of research outputs (e.g., non-indexed books) and impacts (e.g., contributions to communities or impacts on public policy). The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity. It is vital that such contributions are better measured and assessed. [p. xvii Print; p. 19 PDF]

My reading: there’s a problem and we’re not going to try and fix it this time. Good luck to those who come after us. As for this line: “The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity.” Did no one explain that when you use ‘no doubt’, you are introducing doubt? It’s a cousin to ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ and ‘I don’t mean to be rude but …’ .

Good news

This is somewhat encouraging (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada’s international reputation for its capacity to participate in cutting-edge R&D is strong, with 60% of top-cited researchers surveyed internationally indicating that Canada hosts world-leading infrastructure or programs in their fields. This share increased by four percentage points between 2012 and 2017. Canada continues to benefit from a highly educated population and deep pools of research skills and talent. Its population has the highest level of educational attainment in the OECD in the proportion of the population with
a post-secondary education. However, among younger cohorts (aged 25 to 34), Canada has fallen behind Japan and South Korea. The number of researchers per capita in Canada is on a par with that of other developed countries, andincreased modestly between 2004 and 2012. Canada’s output of PhD graduates has also grown in recent years, though it remains low in per capita terms relative to many OECD countries. [pp. xvii-xviii; pp. 19-20]

Don’t let your head get too big

Most of the report observes that our international standing is slipping in various ways such as this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

In contrast, the number of R&D personnel employed in Canadian businesses
dropped by 20% between 2008 and 2013. This is likely related to sustained and
ongoing decline in business R&D investment across the country. R&D as a share
of gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined in Canada since 2001,
and now stands well below the OECD average (Figure 1). As one of few OECD
countries with virtually no growth in total national R&D expenditures between
2006 and 2015, Canada would now need to more than double expenditures to
achieve an R&D intensity comparable to that of leading countries.

Low and declining business R&D expenditures are the dominant driver of this
trend; however, R&D spending in all sectors is implicated. Government R&D
expenditures declined, in real terms, over the same period. Expenditures in the
higher education sector (an indicator on which Canada has traditionally ranked
highly) are also increasing more slowly than the OECD average. Significant
erosion of Canada’s international competitiveness and capacity to participate
in R&D and innovation is likely to occur if this decline and underinvestment
continue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Canada produced 3.8% of the world’s research
publications, ranking ninth in the world. This is down from seventh place for
the 2003–2008 period. India and Italy have overtaken Canada although the
difference between Italy and Canada is small. Publication output in Canada grew
by 26% between 2003 and 2014, a growth rate greater than many developed
countries (including United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and
Japan), but below the world average, which reflects the rapid growth in China
and other emerging economies. Research output from the federal government,
particularly the National Research Council Canada, dropped significantly
between 2009 and 2014.(emphasis mine)  [p. xviii Print; p. 20 PDF]

For anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics,  2009 – 2014 were years during which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed the government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected to form the government in late 2015.

During Harper’s years in government, the Conservatives were very interested in changing how the National Research Council of Canada operated and, if memory serves, the focus was on innovation over research. Consequently, the drop in their research output is predictable.

Given my interest in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, this popped out (from the report released April 10, 2018),

When it comes to research on most enabling and strategic technologies, however, Canada lags other countries. Bibliometric evidence suggests that, with the exception of selected subfields in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as Medical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Canada accounts for a relatively small share of the world’s research output for promising areas of technology development. This is particularly true for Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and Materials science [emphasis mine]. Canada’s research impact, as reflected by citations, is also modest in these areas. Aside from Biotechnology, none of the other subfields in Enabling and Strategic Technologies has an ARC rank among the top five countries. Optoelectronics and photonics is the next highest ranked at 7th place, followed by Materials, and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, both of which have a rank of 9th. Even in areas where Canadian researchers and institutions played a seminal role in early research (and retain a substantial research capacity), such as Artificial Intelligence and Regenerative Medicine, Canada has lost ground to other countries.

Arguably, our early efforts in artificial intelligence wouldn’t have garnered us much in the way of ranking and yet we managed some cutting edge work such as machine learning. I’m not suggesting the expert panel should have or could have found some way to measure these kinds of efforts but I’m wondering if there could have been some acknowledgement in the text of the report. I’m thinking a couple of sentences in a paragraph about the confounding nature of scientific research where areas that are ignored for years and even decades then become important (e.g., machine learning) but are not measured as part of scientific progress until after they are universally recognized.

Still, point taken about our diminishing returns in ’emerging’ technologies and sciences (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The impression that emerges from these data is sobering. With the exception of selected ICT subfields, such as Medical Informatics, bibliometric evidence does not suggest that Canada excels internationally in most of these research areas. In areas such as Nanotechnology and Materials science, Canada lags behind other countries in levels of research output and impact, and other countries are outpacing Canada’s publication growth in these areas — leading to declining shares of world publications. Even in research areas such as AI, where Canadian researchers and institutions played a foundational role, Canadian R&D activity is not keeping pace with that of other countries and some researchers trained in Canada have relocated to other countries (Section 4.4.1). There are isolated exceptions to these trends, but the aggregate data reviewed by this Panel suggest that Canada is not currently a world leader in research on most emerging technologies.

The Hedy Lamarr treatment

We have ‘good looks’ (arts and humanities) but not the kind of brains (physical sciences and engineering) that people admire (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphases mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world researchin these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected
in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

Couldn’t they have used a more buoyant tone? After all, science was known as ‘natural philosophy’ up until the 19th century. As for visual and performing arts, let’s include poetry as a performing and literary art (both have been the case historically and cross-culturally) and let’s also note that one of the great physics texts, (De rerum natura by Lucretius) was a multi-volume poem (from Lucretius’ Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed).

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism [the concept of atoms forming materials] and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy.[15] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[16]

Should you need more proof that the arts might have something to contribute to physical sciences, there’s this in my March 7, 2018 posting,

It’s not often you see research that combines biologically inspired engineering and a molecular biophysicist with a professional animator who worked at Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings film trilogy, etc.) Park Road Post film studio. An Oct. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the project,

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, [emphasis mine] is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions to many of the world’s greatest problems. “I feel that there’s a huge disconnect between science and the public because it’s depicted as rote memorization in schools, when by definition, if you can memorize it, it’s not science,” says Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). [emphasis mine] “Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that.”

“Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to the new scientific insight [emphasis mine] that the limited motion of the dynein hinge focuses the energy released by ATP hydrolysis, which causes dynein’s shape change and drives microtubule sliding and axoneme motion,” says Ingber. “Additionally, while previous studies of dynein have revealed the molecule’s two different static conformations, our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can’t do. The animation approach also allows us to visualize how rows of dyneins work in unison, like rowers pulling together in a boat, which is difficult using conventional scientific simulation approaches.”

It comes down to how we look at things. Yes, physical sciences and engineering are very important. If the report is to be believed we have a very highly educated population and according to PISA scores our students rank highly in mathematics, science, and reading skills. (For more information on Canada’s latest PISA scores from 2015 see this OECD page. As for PISA itself, it’s an OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] programme where 15-year-old students from around the world are tested on their reading, mathematics, and science skills, you can get some information from my Oct. 9, 2013 posting.)

Is it really so bad that we choose to apply those skills in fields other than the physical sciences and engineering? It’s a little bit like Hedy Lamarr’s problem except instead of being judged for our looks and having our inventions dismissed, we’re being judged for not applying ourselves to physical sciences and engineering and having our work in other closely aligned fields dismissed as less important.

Canada’s Industrial R&D: an oft-told, very sad story

Bemoaning the state of Canada’s industrial research and development efforts has been a national pastime as long as I can remember. Here’s this from the report released April 10, 2018,

There has been a sustained erosion in Canada’s industrial R&D capacity and competitiveness. Canada ranks 33rd among leading countries on an index assessing the magnitude, intensity, and growth of industrial R&D expenditures. Although Canada is the 11th largest spender, its industrial R&D intensity (0.9%) is only half the OECD average and total spending is declining (−0.7%). Compared with G7 countries, the Canadian portfolio of R&D investment is more concentrated in industries that are intrinsically not as R&D intensive. Canada invests more heavily than the G7 average in oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance where R&D has been less central to business strategy than in many other industries. …  About 50% of Canada’s industrial R&D spending is in high-tech sectors (including industries such as ICT, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and automotive) compared with the G7 average of 80%. Canadian Business Enterprise Expenditures on R&D (BERD) intensity is also below the OECD average in these sectors. In contrast, Canadian investment in low and medium-low tech sectors is substantially higher than the G7 average. Canada’s spending reflects both its long-standing industrial structure and patterns of economic activity.

R&D investment patterns in Canada appear to be evolving in response to global and domestic shifts. While small and medium-sized enterprises continue to perform a greater share of industrial R&D in Canada than in the United States, between 2009 and 2013, there was a shift in R&D from smaller to larger firms. Canada is an increasingly attractive place to conduct R&D. Investment by foreign-controlled firms in Canada has increased to more than 35% of total R&D investment, with the United States accounting for more than half of that. [emphasis mine]  Multinational enterprises seem to be increasingly locating some of their R&D operations outside their country of ownership, possibly to gain proximity to superior talent. Increasing foreign-controlled R&D, however, also could signal a long-term strategic loss of control over intellectual property (IP) developed in this country, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to support high-growth firms as they scale up. [pp. xxii-xxiii Print; pp. 24-25 PDF]

Canada has been known as a ‘branch plant’ economy for decades. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that companies from other countries come here, open up a branch and that’s how we get our jobs as we don’t have all that many large companies here. Increasingly, multinationals are locating R&D shops here.

While our small to medium size companies fund industrial R&D, it’s large companies (multinationals) which can afford long-term and serious investment in R&D. Luckily for companies from other countries, we have a well-educated population of people looking for jobs.

In 2017, we opened the door more widely so we can scoop up talented researchers and scientists from other countries, from a June 14, 2017 article by Beckie Smith for The PIE News,

Universities have welcomed the inclusion of the work permit exemption for academic stays of up to 120 days in the strategy, which also introduces expedited visa processing for some highly skilled professions.

Foreign researchers working on projects at a publicly funded degree-granting institution or affiliated research institution will be eligible for one 120-day stay in Canada every 12 months.

And universities will also be able to access a dedicated service channel that will support employers and provide guidance on visa applications for foreign talent.

The Global Skills Strategy, which came into force on June 12 [2017], aims to boost the Canadian economy by filling skills gaps with international talent.

As well as the short term work permit exemption, the Global Skills Strategy aims to make it easier for employers to recruit highly skilled workers in certain fields such as computer engineering.

“Employers that are making plans for job-creating investments in Canada will often need an experienced leader, dynamic researcher or an innovator with unique skills not readily available in Canada to make that investment happen,” said Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“The Global Skills Strategy aims to give those employers confidence that when they need to hire from abroad, they’ll have faster, more reliable access to top talent.”

Coincidentally, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. have announced, in 2017, new jobs and new offices in Canadian cities. There’s a also Chinese multinational telecom company Huawei Canada which has enjoyed success in Canada and continues to invest here (from a Jan. 19, 2018 article about security concerns by Matthew Braga for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

For the past decade, Chinese tech company Huawei has found no shortage of success in Canada. Its equipment is used in telecommunications infrastructure run by the country’s major carriers, and some have sold Huawei’s phones.

The company has struck up partnerships with Canadian universities, and say it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching next generation cellular networks here. [emphasis mine]

While I’m not thrilled about using patents as an indicator of progress, this is interesting to note (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada produces about 1% of global patents, ranking 18th in the world. It lags further behind in trademark (34th) and design applications (34th). Despite relatively weak performance overall in patents, Canada excels in some technical fields such as Civil Engineering, Digital Communication, Other Special Machines, Computer Technology, and Telecommunications. [emphases mine] Canada is a net exporter of patents, which signals the R&D strength of some technology industries. It may also reflect increasing R&D investment by foreign-controlled firms. [emphasis mine] [p. xxiii Print; p. 25 PDF]

Getting back to my point, we don’t have large companies here. In fact, the dream for most of our high tech startups is to build up the company so it’s attractive to buyers, sell, and retire (hopefully before the age of 40). Strangely, the expert panel doesn’t seem to share my insight into this matter,

Canada’s combination of high performance in measures of research output and impact, and low performance on measures of industrial R&D investment and innovation (e.g., subpar productivity growth), continue to be viewed as a paradox, leading to the hypothesis that barriers are impeding the flow of Canada’s research achievements into commercial applications. The Panel’s analysis suggests the need for a more nuanced view. The process of transforming research into innovation and wealth creation is a complex multifaceted process, making it difficult to point to any definitive cause of Canada’s deficit in R&D investment and productivity growth. Based on the Panel’s interpretation of the evidence, Canada is a highly innovative nation, but significant barriers prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation. The available evidence does point to a number of important contributing factors that are analyzed in this report. Figure 5 represents the relationships between R&D, innovation, and wealth creation.

The Panel concluded that many factors commonly identified as points of concern do not adequately explain the overall weakness in Canada’s innovation performance compared with other countries. [emphasis mine] Academia-business linkages appear relatively robust in quantitative terms given the extent of cross-sectoral R&D funding and increasing academia-industry partnerships, though the volume of academia-industry interactions does not indicate the nature or the quality of that interaction, nor the extent to which firms are capitalizing on the research conducted and the resulting IP. The educational system is high performing by international standards and there does not appear to be a widespread lack of researchers or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. IP policies differ across universities and are unlikely to explain a divergence in research commercialization activity between Canadian and U.S. institutions, though Canadian universities and governments could do more to help Canadian firms access university IP and compete in IP management and strategy. Venture capital availability in Canada has improved dramatically in recent years and is now competitive internationally, though still overshadowed by Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups and start-up ecosystems are also flourishing in many sectors and regions, demonstrating their ability to build on research advances to develop and deliver innovative products and services.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a cultural issue where start-ups are designed for sale as soon as possible and this isn’t new. Years ago, there was an accounting firm that published a series of historical maps (the last one I saw was in 2005) of technology companies in the Vancouver region. Technology companies were being developed and sold to large foreign companies from the 19th century to present day.

Part 2

Stretchy optical materials for implants that could pulse light

An Oct. 17, 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Emily Chu describes research that could lead to long-lasting implants offering preventive health strategies,

Researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School have developed a biocompatible and highly stretchable optical fiber made from hydrogel — an elastic, rubbery material composed mostly of water. The fiber, which is as bendable as a rope of licorice, may one day be implanted in the body to deliver therapeutic pulses of light or light up at the first sign of disease. [emphasis mine]

The researchers say the fiber may serve as a long-lasting implant that would bend and twist with the body without breaking down. The team has published its results online in the journal Advanced Materials.

Using light to activate cells, and particularly neurons in the brain, is a highly active field known as optogenetics, in which researchers deliver short pulses of light to targeted tissues using needle-like fibers, through which they shine light from an LED source.

“But the brain is like a bowl of Jell-O, whereas these fibers are like glass — very rigid, which can possibly damage brain tissues,” says Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “If these fibers could match the flexibility and softness of the brain, they could provide long-term more effective stimulation and therapy.”

Getting to the core of it

Zhao’s group at MIT, including graduate students Xinyue Liu and Hyunwoo Yuk, specializes in tuning the mechanical properties of hydrogels. The researchers have devised multiple recipes for making tough yet pliable hydrogels out of various biopolymers. The team has also come up with ways to bond hydrogels with various surfaces such as metallic sensors and LEDs, to create stretchable electronics.

The researchers only thought to explore hydrogel’s use in optical fibers after conversations with the bio-optics group at Harvard Medical School, led by Associate Professor Seok-Hyun (Andy) Yun. Yun’s group had previously fabricated an optical fiber from hydrogel material that successfully transmitted light through the fiber. However, the material broke apart when bent or slightly stretched. Zhao’s hydrogels, in contrast, could stretch and bend like taffy. The two groups joined efforts and looked for ways to incorporate Zhao’s hydrogel into Yun’s optical fiber design.

Yun’s design consists of a core material encased in an outer cladding. To transmit the maximum amount of light through the core of the fiber, the core and the cladding should be made of materials with very different refractive indices, or degrees to which they can bend light.

“If these two things are too similar, whatever light source flows through the fiber will just fade away,” Yuk explains. “In optical fibers, people want to have a much higher refractive index in the core, versus cladding, so that when light goes through the core, it bounces off the interface of the cladding and stays within the core.”

Happily, they found that Zhao’s hydrogel material was highly transparent and possessed a refractive index that was ideal as a core material. But when they tried to coat the hydrogel with a cladding polymer solution, the two materials tended to peel apart when the fiber was stretched or bent.

To bond the two materials together, the researchers added conjugation chemicals to the cladding solution, which, when coated over the hydrogel core, generated chemical links between the outer surfaces of both materials.

“It clicks together the carboxyl groups in the cladding, and the amine groups in the core material, like molecular-level glue,” Yuk says.

Sensing strain

The researchers tested the optical fibers’ ability to propagate light by shining a laser through fibers of various lengths. Each fiber transmitted light without significant attenuation, or fading. They also found that fibers could be stretched over seven times their original length without breaking.

Now that they had developed a highly flexible and robust optical fiber, made from a hydrogel material that was also biocompatible, the researchers began to play with the fiber’s optical properties, to see if they could design a fiber that could sense when and where it was being stretched.

They first loaded a fiber with red, green, and blue organic dyes, placed at specific spots along the fiber’s length. Next, they shone a laser through the fiber and stretched, for instance, the red region. They measured the spectrum of light that made it all the way through the fiber, and noted the intensity of the red light. They reasoned that this intensity relates directly to the amount of light absorbed by the red dye, as a result of that region being stretched.

In other words, by measuring the amount of light at the far end of the fiber, the researchers can quantitatively determine where and by how much a fiber was stretched.

“When you stretch a certain portion of the fiber, the dimensions of that part of the fiber changes, along with the amount of light that region absorbs and scatters, so in this way, the fiber can serve as a sensor of strain,” Liu explains.

“This is like a multistrain sensor through a single fiber,” Yuk adds. “So it can be an implantable or wearable strain gauge.”

The researchers imagine that such stretchable, strain-sensing optical fibers could be implanted or fitted along the length of a patient’s arm or leg, to monitor for signs of improving mobility.

Zhao envisions the fibers may also serve as sensors, lighting up in response to signs of disease.

“We may be able to use optical fibers for long-term diagnostics, to optically monitor tumors or inflammation,” he says. “The applications can be impactful.”

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

Highly Stretchable, Strain Sensing Hydrogel Optical Fibers by Jingjing Guo, Xinyue Liu, Nan Jiang, Ali K. Yetisen, Hyunwoo Yuk, Changxi Yang, Ali Khademhosseini, Xuanhe Zhao, and Seok-Hyun Yun. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201603160 Version of Record online: 7 OCT 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) October 18, 2016 talk: At the intersection of Space and Genetics

Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique seems to have settled in at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender), which is hosting (for the third time in four months) an upcoming 2016 Café Scientifique talk. From the October 17, 2016 notice received via email,

We are pleased to announce that this month’s event will be a collaboration with the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG).  The café will be held tomorrow (Tuesday October 18th) at 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown, 433 W Pender.  Please note that this date is one week earlier than usual to coincide with the ASHG Annual Meeting.  Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Ting Wu, from the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. The title of her talk is:

At the intersection of Space and Genetics

Ting (C.-ting) Wu, Ph.D., is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. She is also the Director of the Consortium for Space Genetics, the Director of the Personal Genetics Education (pgEd.org) Project, and a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Her laboratory investigates how chromosome organization influences genome function, inventing and applying technologies for imaging the genome as well as studying how a very puzzling set of sequences, called ultraconserved elements (UCEs), have managed to resist change for a stunning 300 million years. These studies have led her group to consider the potential of their findings for protecting astronauts from the extreme conditions of long-term travel in space. The Wu laboratory also houses the Personal Genetics Education Project, which works to raise public awareness and discourse regarding personal genetics, aiming to make that awareness equal across all communities, regardless of socioeconomic, ethnic, educational, and religious influences.

Have a lovely time!

Nanotechnology, math, cancer, and a boxing metaphor

Violent metaphors in medicine are not unusual although the reference is often to war rather than boxing as it is in this news from the University of Waterloo (Canada). Still, it seems counter-intuitive to closely link violence with healing but the practice is well entrenched and it seems attempts to counteract it are a ‘losing battle’ (pun intended).

Credit: Gabriel Picolo "2-in-1 punch." Courtesy: University of Waterloo

Credit: Gabriel Picolo “2-in-1 punch.” Courtesy: University of Waterloo

A June 23, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a new approach to cancer therapy,

Math, biology and nanotechnology are becoming strange, yet effective bed-fellows in the fight against cancer treatment resistance. Researchers at the University of Waterloo and Harvard Medical School have engineered a revolutionary new approach to cancer treatment that pits a lethal combination of drugs together into a single nanoparticle.

Their work, published online on June 3, 2016 in the leading nanotechnology journal ACS Nano, finds a new method of shrinking tumors and prevents resistance in aggressive cancers by activating two drugs within the same cell at the same time.

A June 23, 2016 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Every year thousands of patients die from recurrent cancers that have become resistant to therapy, resulting in one of the greatest unsolved challenges in cancer treatment. By tracking the fate of individual cancer cells under pressure of chemotherapy, biologists and bioengineers at Harvard Medical School studied a network of signals and molecular pathways that allow the cells to generate resistance over the course of treatment.

Using this information, a team of applied mathematicians led by Professor Mohammad Kohandel at the University of Waterloo, developed a mathematical model that incorporated algorithms that define the phenotypic cell state transitions of cancer cells in real-time while under attack by an anticancer agent. The mathematical simulations enabled them to define the exact molecular behavior and pathway of signals, which allow cancer cells to survive treatment over time.

They discovered that the PI3K/AKT kinase, which is often over-activated in cancers, enables cells to undergo a resistance program when pressured with the cytotoxic chemotherapy known as Taxanes, which are conventionally used to treat aggressive breast cancers. This revolutionary window into the life of a cell reveals that vulnerabilities to small molecule PI3K/AKT kinase inhibitors exist, and can be targeted if they are applied in the right sequence with combinations of other drugs.

Previously theories of drug resistance have relied on the hypothesis that only certain, “privileged” cells can overcome therapy. The mathematical simulations demonstrate that, under the right conditions and signaling events, any cell can develop a resistance program.

“Only recently have we begun to appreciate how important mathematics and physics are to understanding the biology and evolution of cancer,” said Professor Kohandel. “In fact, there is now increasing synergy between these disciplines, and we are beginning to appreciate how critical this information can be to create the right recipes to treat cancer.”

Although previous studies explored the use of drug combinations to treat cancer, the one-two punch approach is not always successful. In the new study, led by Professor Aaron Goldman, a faculty member in the division of Engineering in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the scientists realized a major shortcoming of the combination therapy approach is that both drugs need to be active in the same cell, something that current delivery methods can’t guarantee.

“We were inspired by the mathematical understanding that a cancer cell rewires the mechanisms of resistance in a very specific order and time-sensitive manner,” said Professor Goldman. “By developing a 2-in-1 nanomedicine, we could ensure the cell that was acquiring this new resistance saw the lethal drug combination, shutting down the survival program and eliminating the evidence of resistance. This approach could redefine how clinicians deliver combinations of drugs in the clinic.”

The approach the bioengineers took was to build a single nanoparticle, inspired by computer models, that exploit a technique known as supramolecular chemistry. This nanotechnology enables scientists to build cholesterol-tethered drugs together from “tetris-like” building blocks that self-assemble, incorporating multiple drugs into stable, individual nano-vehicles that target tumors through the leaky vasculature. This 2-in-1 strategy ensures that resistance to therapy never has a chance to develop, bringing together the right recipe to destroy surviving cancer cells.

Using mouse models of aggressive breast cancer, the scientists confirmed the predictions from the mathematical model that both drugs must be deterministically delivered to the same cell.

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

Rationally Designed 2-in-1 Nanoparticles Can Overcome Adaptive Resistance in Cancer by Aaron Goldman, Ashish Kulkarni, Mohammad Kohandel, Prithvi Pandey, Poornima Rao, Siva Kumar Natarajan, Venkata Sabbisetti, and Shiladitya Sengupta. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b00320 Publication Date (Web): June 03, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have made this illustration of their work available,

Courtesy: American Chemical Society

Courtesy: American Chemical Society

Taking DNA beyond genetics with living computers and nanobots

You might want to keep a salt shaker with you while reading a June 7, 2016 essay by Matteo Palma (Queen Mary’s University of London) about nanotechnology and DNA on The Conversation website (h/t June 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk).

This is not a ‘hype’ piece as Palma backs every claim with links to the research while providing a good overview of some very exciting work but the mood is a bit euphoric so you may want to keep the earlier mentioned salt shaker nearby.

Palma offers a very nice beginner introduction especially helpful for someone who only half-remembers their high school biology (from the June 7, 2016 essay)

DNA is one of the most amazing molecules in nature, providing a way to carry the instructions needed to create almost any lifeform on Earth in a microscopic package. Now scientists are finding ways to push DNA even further, using it not just to store information but to create physical components in a range of biological machines.

Deoxyribonucleic acid or “DNA” carries the genetic information that we, and all living organisms, use to function. It typically comes in the form of the famous double-helix shape, made up of two single-stranded DNA molecules folded into a spiral. Each of these is made up of a series of four different types of molecular component: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).

Genes are made up from different sequences of these building block components, and the order in which they appear in a strand of DNA is what encodes genetic information. But by precisely designing different A,G,T and C sequences, scientists have recently been able to develop new ways of folding DNA into different origami shapes, beyond the conventional double helix.

This approach has opened up new possibilities of using DNA beyond its genetic and biological purpose, turning it into a Lego-like material for building objects that are just a few billionths of a metre in diameter (nanoscale). DNA-based materials are now being used for a variety of applications, ranging from templates for electronic nano-devices, to ways of precisely carrying drugs to diseased cells.

He highlights some Canadian work,

Designing electronic devices that are just nanometres in size opens up all sorts of possible applications but makes it harder to spot defects. As a way of dealing with this, researchers at the University of Montreal have used DNA to create ultrasensitive nanoscale thermometers that could help find minuscule hotspots in nanodevices (which would indicate a defect). They could also be used to monitor the temperature inside living cells.

The nanothermometers are made using loops of DNA that act as switches, folding or unfolding in response to temperature changes. This movement can be detected by attaching optical probes to the DNA. The researchers now want to build these nanothermometers into larger DNA devices that can work inside the human body.

He also mentions the nanobots that will heal your body (according to many works of fiction),

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used DNA to design and build a nanosized robot that acts as a drug delivery vehicle to target specific cells. The nanorobot comes in the form of an open barrel made of DNA, whose two halves are connected by a hinge held shut by special DNA handles. These handles can recognise combinations of specific proteins present on the surface of cells, including ones associated with diseases.

When the robot comes into contact with the right cells, it opens the container and delivers its cargo. When applied to a mixture of healthy and cancerous human blood cells, these robots showed the ability to target and kill half of the cancer cells, while the healthy cells were left unharmed.

Palma is describing a very exciting development and there are many teams worldwide working on ways to make drugs more effective and less side effect-ridden. However there does seem to be a bit of a problem with targeted drug delivery as noted in my April 27, 2016 posting,

According to an April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) along with their collaborators in the US (Harvard Medical School) and Japan (University of Tokyo) have determined that less than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their intended destination …

Less than 1%? Admittedly, nanoparticles are not the same as nanobots but the problem is in the delivery, from my April 27, 2016 posting,

… the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

I imagine nanobots will suffer a similar fate since the actual delivery mechanism to a targeted cell is still a mystery.

I quite enjoyed Palma’s essay and appreciated the links he provided. My only proviso, keep a salt shaker nearby. That rosy future is going take a while to get here.

Using scientific methods and technology to explore living systems as artistic subjects: bioart

There is a fascinating set of stories about bioart designed to whet your appetite for more (*) in a Nov. 23, 2015 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Joe Davis is an artist who works not only with paints or pastels, but also with genes and bacteria. In 1986, he collaborated with geneticist Dan Boyd to encode a symbol for life and femininity into an E. coli bacterium. The piece, called Microvenus, was the first artwork to use the tools and techniques of molecular biology. Since then, bioart has become one of several contemporary art forms (including reclamation art and nanoart) that apply scientific methods and technology to explore living systems as artistic subjects. A review of the field, published November 23, can be found in Trends in Biotechnology.

Bioart ranges from bacterial manipulation to glowing rabbits, cellular sculptures, and–in the case of Australian-British artist Nina Sellars–documentation of an ear prosthetic that was implanted onto fellow artist Stelarc’s arm. In the pursuit of creating art, practitioners have generated tools and techniques that have aided researchers, while sometimes crossing into controversy, such as by releasing invasive species into the environment, blurring the lines between art and modern biology, raising philosophical, societal, and environmental issues that challenge scientific thinking.

“Most people don’t know that bioart exists, but it can enable scientists to produce new ideas and give us opportunities to look differently at problems,” says author Ali K. Yetisen, who works at Harvard Medical School and the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. “At the same time there’s been a lot of ethical and safety concerns happening around bioart and artists who wanted to get involved in the past have made mistakes.”

Here’s a sample of Joe Davis’s work,

 Caption This photograph shows polyptich paintings by Joe Davis of his 28-mer Microvenus DNA molecule (2006 Exhibition in Greece at Athens School of Fine Arts). Credit: Courtesy of Joe Davis

This photograph shows polyptich paintings by Joe Davis of his 28-mer Microvenus DNA molecule (2006 Exhibition in Greece at Athens School of Fine Arts). Credit: Courtesy of Joe Davis

The news release goes on to recount a brief history of bioart, which stretches back to 1928 and then further back into the 19th and 18th centuries,

In between experiments, Alexander Fleming would paint stick figures and landscapes on paper and in Petri dishes using bacteria. In 1928, after taking a brief hiatus from the lab, he noticed that portions of his “germ paintings,” had been killed. The culprit was a fungus, penicillin–a discovery that would revolutionize medicine for decades to come.

In 1938, photographer Edward Steichen used a chemical to genetically alter and produce interesting variations in flowering delphiniums. This chemical, colchicine, would later be used by horticulturalists to produce desirable mutations in crops and ornamental plants.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the arts and sciences moved away from traditionally shared interests and formed secular divisions that persisted well into the 20th century. “Appearance of environmental art in the 1970s brought about renewed awareness of special relationships between art and the natural world,” Yetisen says.

To demonstrate how we change landscapes, American sculptor Robert Smithsonian paved a hillside with asphalt, while Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheffa (of Christo and Jeanne-Claude) surrounded resurfaced barrier islands with bright pink plastic.

These pieces could sometimes be destructive, however, such as in Ten Turtles Set Free by German-born Hans Haacke. To draw attention to the excesses of the pet trade, he released what he thought were endangered tortoises back to their natural habitat in France, but he inadvertently released the wrong subspecies, thus compromising the genetic lineages of the endangered tortoises as the two varieties began to mate.

By the late 1900s, technological advances began to draw artists’ attention to biology, and by the 2000s, it began to take shape as an artistic identity. Following Joe Davis’ transgenic Microvenus came a miniaturized leather jacket made of skin cells, part of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (initiated in 1996) by duo Oran Catts and Ionat Zurr. Other examples of bioart include: the use of mutant cacti to simulate appearance of human hair in the place of cactus spines by Laura Cinti of University College London’s C-Lab; modification of butterfly wings for artistic purposes by Marta de Menezes of Portugal; and photographs of amphibian deformation by American Brandon Ballengée.

“Bioart encourages discussions about societal, philosophical, and environmental issues and can help enhance public understanding of advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering,” says co-author Ahmet F. Coskun, who works in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at California Institute of Technology.

Life as a Bioartist

Today, Joe Davis is a research affiliate at MIT Biology and “Artist-Scientist” at the George Church Laboratory at Harvard–a place that fosters creativity and technological development around genetic engineering and synthetic biology. “It’s Oz, pure and simple,” Davis says. “The total amount of resources in this environment and the minds that are accessible, it’s like I come to the city of Oz every day.”

But it’s not a one-way street. “My particular lab depends on thinking outside the box and not dismissing things because they sound like science fiction,” says [George M.] Church, who is also part of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “Joe is terrific at keeping us flexible and nimble in that regard.”

For example, Davis is working with several members of the Church lab to perform metagenomics analyses of the dust that accumulates at the bottom of money-counting machines. Another project involves genetically engineering silk worms to spin metallic gold–an homage to the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

“I collaborate with many colleagues on projects that don’t necessarily have direct scientific results, but they’re excited to pursue these avenues of inquiry that they might not or would not look into ordinarily–they might try to hide it, but a lot of scientists have poetic souls,” Davis says. “Art, like science, has to describe the whole word and you can’t describe something you’re basically clueless about. The most exciting part of these activities is satiating overwhelming curiosity about everything around you.”

The number of bioartists is still small, Davis says, partly because of a lack of federal funding of the arts in general. Accessibility to the types of equipment bioartists want to experiment with can also be an issue. While Davis has partnered with labs over the past few decades, other artists affiliate themselves with community access laboratories that are run by do-it-yourself biologists. One way that universities can help is to create departmental-wide positions for bioartists to collaborate with scientists.

“In the past, there have been artists affiliated with departments in a very utilitarian way to produce figures or illustrations,” Church says. “Having someone like Joe stimulates our lab to come together in new ways and if we had more bioartists, I think thinking out of the box would be a more common thing.”

“In the era of genetic engineering, bioart will gain new meanings and annotations in social and scientific contexts,” says Yetisen. “Bioartists will surely take up new roles in science laboratories, but this will be subject to ethical criticism and controversy as a matter of course.”

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

Bioart by Ali K. Yetisen, Joe Davis, Ahmet F. Coskun, George M. Church, Seok Hyun. Trends in Biotechnology,  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2015.09.011 Published Online: November 23, 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

*Removed the word ‘featured’ on Dec. 1, 2015 at 1030 hours PDT.

Safety mechanisms needed before synthetic biology moves from the labs into the real world

A Sept. 17, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now makes note of an article where experts review the state of the synthetic biology field and discuss the need for safety as synthetic biology is poised to move from the laboratory into the real world,

Targeted cancer treatments, toxicity sensors and living factories: synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. But before the technology is ready for real-world applications, more attention needs to be paid to its safety and stability, say experts in a review article published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology.

Synthetic biology involves engineering microbes like bacteria to program them to behave in certain ways. For example, bacteria can be engineered to glow when they detect certain molecules, and can be turned into tiny factories to produce chemicals.

Synthetic biology has now reached a stage where it’s ready to move out of the lab and into the real world, to be used in patients and in the field. According to Professor Pamela Silver, one of the authors of the article from Harvard Medical School in the US, this move means researchers should increase focus on the safety of engineered microbes in biological systems like the human body.

A Sept. 16, 2015 Elsevier press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Historically, molecular biologists engineered microbes as industrial organisms to produce different molecules,” said Professor Silver. “The more we discovered about microbes, the easier it was to program them. We’ve now reached a very exciting phase in synthetic biology where we’re ready to apply what we’ve developed in the real world, and this is where safety is vital.”

Microbes have an impact on health; the way they interact with animals is being ever more revealed by microbiome research – studies on all the microbes that live in the body – and this is making them easier and faster to engineer. Scientists are now able to synthesize whole genomes, making it technically possible to build a microbe from scratch.

“Ultimately, this is the future – this will be the way we program microbes and other cell types,” said Dr. Silver. “Microbes have small genomes, so they’re not too complex to build from scratch. That gives us huge opportunities to design them to do specific jobs, and we can also program in safety mechanisms.”

One of the big safety issues associated with engineering microbial genomes is the transfer of their genes to wild microbes. Microbes are able to transfer segments of their DNA during reproduction, which leads to genetic evolution. One key challenge associated with synthetic biology is preventing this transfer between the engineered genome and wild microbial genomes.

There are already several levels of safety infrastructure in place to ensure no unethical research is done, and the kinds of organisms that are allowed in laboratories. The focus now, according to Dr. Silver, is on technology to ensure safety. When scientists build synthetic microbes, they can program in mechanisms called kill switches that cause the microbes to self-destruct if their environment changes in certain ways.

Microbial sensors and drug delivery systems can be shown to work in the lab, but researchers are not yet sure how they will function in a human body or a large-scale bioreactor. Engineered organisms have huge potential, but they will only be useful if proven to be reliable, predictable, and cost effective. Today, engineered bacteria are already in clinical trials for cancer, and this is just the beginning, says Dr. Silver.

“The rate at which this field is moving forward is incredible. I don’t know what happened – maybe it’s the media coverage, maybe the charisma – but we’re on the verge of something very exciting. Once we’ve figured out how to make genomes more quickly and easily, synthetic biology will change the way we work as researchers, and even the way we treat diseases.”

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten has written a Sept. 16, 2015 article for Elsevier abut this paper,

In January, the UK government announced a funding injection of £40 million to boost synthetic biology research, adding three new Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs) in Manchester, Edinburgh and Warwick. The additional funding takes the UK’s total public spending on synthetic biology to £200 million – an investment that hints at the commercial potential of synthetic biology.

In fact, according to the authors of a new review published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. …

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

Synthetic biology expands chemical control of microorganisms by Tyler J Ford, Pamela A Silver. Current Opinion in Chemical Biology Volume 28, October 2015, Pages 20–28  doi:10.1016/j.cbpa.2015.05.012

I believe this paper is open access until January 16, 2016.

As the paper has a nice introductory description of synthetic biology, I thought I’d include it here, as well as, the conclusion which is not as safety-oriented as I expected,

Synthetic biology allows scientists to re-program interactions between genes, proteins, and small molecules. One of the goals of synthetic biology is to produce organisms that predictably carry out desired functions and thereby perform as well-controlled so-called biological devices. Together, synthetic and chemical biology can provide increased control over biological systems by changing the ways these systems respond to and produce chemical stimuli. Sensors, which detect small molecules and direct later cellular function, provide the basis for chemical control over biological systems. The techniques of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering can link sensors to metabolic processes and proteins with many different activities. In this review we stratify the activities affected by sensors to three different levels: sensor-reporters that provide a simple read-out of small molecule levels, sensor-effectors that alter the behavior of single organisms in response to small molecules, and sensor effectors that coordinate the activities of multiple organisms in response to small molecules …

Conclusion

We have come to the point in synthetic biology where there are many lab-scale or proof-of-concept examples of chemically controlled systems useful to sense small molecules, treat disease, and produce commercially useful compounds. These systems have great potential, but more attention needs to be paid to their stability, efficacy, and safety. Being that the sensor-effectors discussed above function in living, evolving organisms, it is unclear how well they will retain function when distributed in a patient or in a large-scale bioreactor. Future efforts should focus on developing these sensor-effectors for real-world application. Engineered organisms will only be useful if we can prove that their functions are reliable, predictable, and cost effective.