Tag Archives: MIT

Innovation and two Canadian universities

I have two news bits and both concern the Canadian universities, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Toronto (UofT).

Creative Destruction Lab – West

First, the Creative Destruction Lab, a technology commercialization effort based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, is opening an office in the west according to a Sept. 28, 2016 UBC media release (received via email; Note: Links have been removed; this is a long media release which interestingly does not mention Joseph Schumpeter the man who developed the economic theory which he called: creative destruction),

The UBC Sauder School of Business is launching the Western Canadian version of the Creative Destruction Lab, a successful seed-stage program based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, to help high-technology ventures driven by university research maximize their commercial impact and benefit to society.

“Creative Destruction Lab – West will provide a much-needed support system to ensure innovations formulated on British Columbia campuses can access the funding they need to scale up and grow in-province,” said Robert Helsley, Dean of the UBC Sauder School of Business. “The success our partners at Rotman have had in helping commercialize the scientific breakthroughs of Canadian talent is remarkable and is exactly what we plan to replicate at UBC Sauder.”

Between 2012 and 2016, companies from CDL’s first four years generated over $800 million in equity value. It has supported a long line of emerging startups, including computer-human interface company Thalmic Labs, which announced nearly USD $120 million in funding on September 19, one of the largest Series B financings in Canadian history.

Focusing on massively scalable high-tech startups, CDL-West will provide coaching from world-leading entrepreneurs, support from dedicated business and science faculty, and access to venture capital. While some of the ventures will originate at UBC, CDL-West will also serve the entire province and extended western region by welcoming ventures from other universities. The program will closely align with existing entrepreneurship programs across UBC, including, e@UBC and HATCH, and actively work with the BC Tech Association [also known as the BC Technology Industry Association] and other partners to offer a critical next step in the venture creation process.

“We created a model for tech venture creation that keeps startups focused on their essential business challenges and dedicated to solving them with world-class support,” said CDL Founder Ajay Agrawal, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and UBC PhD alumnus.

“By partnering with UBC Sauder, we will magnify the impact of CDL by drawing in ventures from one of the country’s other leading research universities and B.C.’s burgeoning startup scene to further build the country’s tech sector and the opportunities for job creation it provides,” said CDL Director, Rachel Harris.

CDL uses a goal-setting model to push ventures along a path toward success. Over nine months, a collective of leading entrepreneurs with experience building and scaling technology companies – called the G7 – sets targets for ventures to hit every eight weeks, with the goal of maximizing their equity-value. Along the way ventures turn to business and technology experts for strategic guidance on how to reach goals, and draw on dedicated UBC Sauder students who apply state-of the-art business skills to help companies decide which market to enter first and how.

Ventures that fail to achieve milestones – approximately 50 per cent in past cohorts – are cut from the process. Those that reach their objectives and graduate from the program attract investment from the G7, as well as other leading venture-capital firms.

Currently being assembled, the CDL-West G7 will be comprised of entrepreneurial luminaries, including Jeff Mallett, the founding President, COO and Director of Yahoo! Inc. from 1995-2002 – a company he led to $4 billion in revenues and grew from a startup to a publicly traded company whose value reached $135 billion. He is now Managing Director of Iconica Partners and Managing Partner of Mallett Sports & Entertainment, with ventures including the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park and Mission Rock Development, Comcast Bay Area Sports Network, the San Jose Giants, Major League Soccer, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and a variety of other sports and online ventures.

Already bearing fruit, the Creative Destruction Lab partnership will see several UBC ventures accepted into a Machine Learning Specialist Track run by Rotman’s CDL this fall. This track is designed to create a support network for enterprises focused on artificial intelligence, a research strength at UofT and Canada more generally, which has traditionally migrated to the United States for funding and commercialization. In its second year, CDL-West will launch its own specialist track in an area of strength at UBC that will draw eastern ventures west.

“This new partnership creates the kind of high impact innovation network the Government of Canada wants to encourage,” said Brandon Lee, Canada’s Consul General in San Francisco, who works to connect Canadian innovation to customers and growth capital opportunities in Silicon Valley. “By collaborating across our universities to enhance our capacity to turn the scientific discoveries into businesses in Canada, we can further advance our nation’s global competitiveness in the knowledge-based industries.”

The Creative Destruction Lab is guided by an Advisory Board, co-chaired by Vancouver-based Haig Farris, a pioneer of the Canadian venture capitalist industry, and Bill Graham, Chancellor of Trinity College at UofT and former Canadian cabinet minister.

“By partnering with Rotman, UBC Sauder will be able to scale up its support for high-tech ventures extremely quickly and with tremendous impact,” said Paul Cubbon, Leader of CDL-West and a faculty member at UBC Sauder. “CDL-West will act as a turbo booster for ventures with great ideas, but which lack the strategic roadmap and funding to make them a reality.”

CDL-West launched its competitive application process for the first round of ventures that will begin in January 2017. Interested ventures are encouraged to submit applications via the CDL website at: www.creativedestructionlab.com

Background

UBC Technology ventures represented at media availability

Awake Labs is a wearable technology startup whose products measure and track anxiety in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to better understand behaviour. Their first device, Reveal, monitors a wearer’s heart-rate, body temperature and sweat levels using high-tech sensors to provide insight into care and promote long term independence.

Acuva Technologies is a Vancouver-based clean technology venture focused on commercializing breakthrough UltraViolet Light Emitting Diode technology for water purification systems. Initially focused on point of use systems for boats, RVs and off grid homes in North American market, where they already have early sales, the company’s goal is to enable water purification in households in developing countries by 2018 and deploy large scale systems by 2021.

Other members of the CDL-West G7 include:

Boris Wertz: One of the top tech early-stage investors in North America and the founding partner of Version One, Wertz is also a board partner with Andreessen Horowitz. Before becoming an investor, Wertz was the Chief Operating Officer of AbeBooks.com, which sold to Amazon in 2008. He was responsible for marketing, business development, product, customer service and international operations. His deep operational experience helps him guide other entrepreneurs to start, build and scale companies.

Lisa Shields: Founder of Hyperwallet Systems Inc., Shields guided Hyperwallet from a technology startup to the leading international payments processor for business to consumer mass payouts. Prior to founding Hyperwallet, Lisa managed payments acceptance and risk management technology teams for high-volume online merchants. She was the founding director of the Wireless Innovation Society of British Columbia and is driven by the social and economic imperatives that shape global payment technologies.

Jeff Booth: Co-founder, President and CEO of Build Direct, a rapidly growing online supplier of home improvement products. Through custom and proprietary web analytics and forecasting tools, BuildDirect is reinventing and redefining how consumers can receive the best prices. BuildDirect has 12 warehouse locations across North America and is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. In 2015, Booth was awarded the BC Technology ‘Person of the Year’ Award by the BC Technology Industry Association.

Education:

CDL-west will provide a transformational experience for MBA and senior undergraduate students at UBC Sauder who will act as venture advisors. Replacing traditional classes, students learn by doing during the process of rapid equity-value creation.

Supporting venture development at UBC:

CDL-west will work closely with venture creation programs across UBC to complete the continuum of support aimed at maximizing venture value and investment. It will draw in ventures that are being or have been supported and developed in programs that span campus, including:

University Industry Liaison Office which works to enable research and innovation partnerships with industry, entrepreneurs, government and non-profit organizations.

e@UBC which provides a combination of mentorship, education, venture creation, and seed funding to support UBC students, alumni, faculty and staff.

HATCH, a UBC technology incubator which leverages the expertise of the UBC Sauder School of Business and entrepreneurship@UBC and a seasoned team of domain-specific experts to provide real-world, hands-on guidance in moving from innovative concept to successful venture.

Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, a program base at the UBC Sauder Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing focused on developing ventures with the goal of creating positive social and environmental impact.

About the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto:

The Creative Destruction Lab leverages the Rotman School’s leading faculty and industry network as well as its location in the heart of Canada’s business capital to accelerate massively scalable, technology-based ventures that have the potential to transform our social, industrial, and economic landscape. The Lab has had a material impact on many nascent startups, including Deep Genomics, Greenlid, Atomwise, Bridgit, Kepler Communications, Nymi, NVBots, OTI Lumionics, PUSH, Thalmic Labs, Vertical.ai, Revlo, Validere, Growsumo, and VoteCompass, among others. For more information, visit www.creativedestructionlab.com

About the UBC Sauder School of Business

The UBC Sauder School of Business is committed to developing transformational and responsible business leaders for British Columbia and the world. Located in Vancouver, Canada’s gateway to the Pacific Rim, the school is distinguished for its long history of partnership and engagement in Asia, the excellence of its graduates, and the impact of its research which ranks in the top 20 globally. For more information, visit www.sauder.ubc.ca

About the Rotman School of Management

The Rotman School of Management is located in the heart of Canada’s commercial and cultural capital and is part of the University of Toronto, one of the world’s top 20 research universities. The Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables graduates to tackle today’s global business and societal challenges. For more information, visit www.rotman.utoronto.ca.

It’s good to see a couple of successful (according to the news release) local entrepreneurs on the board although I’m somewhat puzzled by Mallett’s presence since, if memory serves, Yahoo! was not doing that well when he left in 2002. The company was an early success but utterly dwarfed by Google at some point in the early 2000s and these days, its stock (both financial and social) has continued to drift downwards. As for Mallett’s current successes, there is no mention of them.

Reuters Top 100 of the world’s most innovative universities

After reading or skimming through the CDL-West news you might think that the University of Toronto ranked higher than UBC on the Reuters list of the world’s most innovative universities. Before breaking the news about the Canadian rankings, here’s more about the list from a Sept, 28, 2016 Reuters news release (receive via email),

Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University top the second annual Reuters Top 100 ranking of the world’s most innovative universities. The Reuters Top 100 ranking aims to identify the institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and help drive the global economy. Unlike other rankings that often rely entirely or in part on subjective surveys, the ranking uses proprietary data and analysis tools from the Intellectual Property & Science division of Thomson Reuters to examine a series of patent and research-related metrics, and get to the essence of what it means to be truly innovative.

In the fast-changing world of science and technology, if you’re not innovating, you’re falling behind. That’s one of the key findings of this year’s Reuters 100. The 2016 results show that big breakthroughs – even just one highly influential paper or patent – can drive a university way up the list, but when that discovery fades into the past, so does its ranking. Consistency is key, with truly innovative institutions putting out groundbreaking work year after year.

Stanford held fast to its first place ranking by consistently producing new patents and papers that influence researchers elsewhere in academia and in private industry. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ranked #2) were behind some of the most important innovations of the past century, including the development of digital computers and the completion of the Human Genome Project. Harvard University (ranked #3), is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and has produced 47 Nobel laureates over the course of its 380-year history.

Some universities saw significant movement up the list, including, most notably, the University of Chicago, which jumped from #71 last year to #47 in 2016. Other list-climbers include the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology (#73 to #44) and South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University (#66 to #46).

The United States continues to dominate the list, with 46 universities in the top 100; Japan is once again the second best performing country, with nine universities. France and South Korea are tied in third, each with eight. Germany has seven ranked universities; the United Kingdom has five; Switzerland, Belgium and Israel have three; Denmark, China and Canada have two; and the Netherlands and Singapore each have one.

You can find the rankings here (scroll down about 75% of the way) and for the impatient, the University of British Columbia ranked 50th and the University of Toronto 57th.

The biggest surprise for me was that China, like Canada, had two universities on the list. I imagine that will change as China continues its quest for science and innovation dominance. Given how they tout their innovation prowess, I had one other surprise, the University of Waterloo’s absence.

How might artificial intelligence affect urban life in 2030? A study

Peering into the future is always a chancy business as anyone who’s seen those film shorts from the 1950’s and 60’s which speculate exuberantly as to what the future will bring knows.

A sober approach (appropriate to our times) has been taken in a study about the impact that artificial intelligence might have by 2030. From a Sept. 1, 2016 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Tom Abate (Note: Links have been removed),

A panel of academic and industrial thinkers has looked ahead to 2030 to forecast how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) might affect life in a typical North American city – in areas as diverse as transportation, health care and education ­– and to spur discussion about how to ensure the safe, fair and beneficial development of these rapidly emerging technologies.

Titled “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030,” this year-long investigation is the first product of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100), an ongoing project hosted by Stanford to inform societal deliberation and provide guidance on the ethical development of smart software, sensors and machines.

“We believe specialized AI applications will become both increasingly common and more useful by 2030, improving our economy and quality of life,” said Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the 17-member panel of international experts. “But this technology will also create profound challenges, affecting jobs and incomes and other issues that we should begin addressing now to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared.”

The new report traces its roots to a 2009 study that brought AI scientists together in a process of introspection that became ongoing in 2014, when Eric and Mary Horvitz created the AI100 endowment through Stanford. AI100 formed a standing committee of scientists and charged this body with commissioning periodic reports on different aspects of AI over the ensuing century.

“This process will be a marathon, not a sprint, but today we’ve made a good start,” said Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and the Stanford faculty director of AI100. “Stanford is excited to host this process of introspection. This work makes practical contribution to the public debate on the roles and implications of artificial intelligence.”

The AI100 standing committee first met in 2015, led by chairwoman and Harvard computer scientist Barbara Grosz. It sought to convene a panel of scientists with diverse professional and personal backgrounds and enlist their expertise to assess the technological, economic and policy implications of potential AI applications in a societally relevant setting.

“AI technologies can be reliable and broadly beneficial,” Grosz said. “Being transparent about their design and deployment challenges will build trust and avert unjustified fear and suspicion.”

The report investigates eight domains of human activity in which AI technologies are beginning to affect urban life in ways that will become increasingly pervasive and profound by 2030.

The 28,000-word report includes a glossary to help nontechnical readers understand how AI applications such as computer vision might help screen tissue samples for cancers or how natural language processing will allow computerized systems to grasp not simply the literal definitions, but the connotations and intent, behind words.

The report is broken into eight sections focusing on applications of AI. Five examine application arenas such as transportation where there is already buzz about self-driving cars. Three other sections treat technological impacts, like the section on employment and workplace trends which touches on the likelihood of rapid changes in jobs and incomes.

“It is not too soon for social debate on how the fruits of an AI-dominated economy should be shared,” the researchers write in the report, noting also the need for public discourse.

“Currently in the United States, at least sixteen separate agencies govern sectors of the economy related to AI technologies,” the researchers write, highlighting issues raised by AI applications: “Who is responsible when a self-driven car crashes or an intelligent medical device fails? How can AI applications be prevented from [being used for] racial discrimination or financial cheating?”

The eight sections discuss:

Transportation: Autonomous cars, trucks and, possibly, aerial delivery vehicles may alter how we commute, work and shop and create new patterns of life and leisure in cities.

Home/service robots: Like the robotic vacuum cleaners already in some homes, specialized robots will clean and provide security in live/work spaces that will be equipped with sensors and remote controls.

Health care: Devices to monitor personal health and robot-assisted surgery are hints of things to come if AI is developed in ways that gain the trust of doctors, nurses, patients and regulators.

Education: Interactive tutoring systems already help students learn languages, math and other skills. More is possible if technologies like natural language processing platforms develop to augment instruction by humans.

Entertainment: The conjunction of content creation tools, social networks and AI will lead to new ways to gather, organize and deliver media in engaging, personalized and interactive ways.

Low-resource communities: Investments in uplifting technologies like predictive models to prevent lead poisoning or improve food distributions could spread AI benefits to the underserved.

Public safety and security: Cameras, drones and software to analyze crime patterns should use AI in ways that reduce human bias and enhance safety without loss of liberty or dignity.

Employment and workplace: Work should start now on how to help people adapt as the economy undergoes rapid changes as many existing jobs are lost and new ones are created.

“Until now, most of what is known about AI comes from science fiction books and movies,” Stone said. “This study provides a realistic foundation to discuss how AI technologies are likely to affect society.”

Grosz said she hopes the AI 100 report “initiates a century-long conversation about ways AI-enhanced technologies might be shaped to improve life and societies.”

You can find the A100 website here, and the group’s first paper: “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030” here. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to read the report but I hope to do so soon.

The AI100 website’s About page offered a surprise,

This effort, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, is the brainchild of computer scientist and Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz who, among other credits, is a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

In that capacity Horvitz convened a conference in 2009 at which top researchers considered advances in artificial intelligence and its influences on people and society, a discussion that illuminated the need for continuing study of AI’s long-term implications.

Now, together with Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and computer science at Stanford, Horvitz has formed a committee that will select a panel to begin a series of periodic studies on how AI will affect automation, national security, psychology, ethics, law, privacy, democracy and other issues.

“Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound undertakings in science, and one that will affect every aspect of human life,” said Stanford President John Hennessy, who helped initiate the project. “Given’s Stanford’s pioneering role in AI and our interdisciplinary mindset, we feel obliged and qualified to host a conversation about how artificial intelligence will affect our children and our children’s children.”

Five leading academicians with diverse interests will join Horvitz and Altman in launching this effort. They are:

  • Barbara Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at HarvardUniversity and an expert on multi-agent collaborative systems;
  • Deirdre K. Mulligan, a lawyer and a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with technologists to advance privacy and other democratic values through technical design and policy;

    This effort, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, is the brainchild of computer scientist and Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz who, among other credits, is a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

    In that capacity Horvitz convened a conference in 2009 at which top researchers considered advances in artificial intelligence and its influences on people and society, a discussion that illuminated the need for continuing study of AI’s long-term implications.

    Now, together with Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and computer science at Stanford, Horvitz has formed a committee that will select a panel to begin a series of periodic studies on how AI will affect automation, national security, psychology, ethics, law, privacy, democracy and other issues.

    “Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound undertakings in science, and one that will affect every aspect of human life,” said Stanford President John Hennessy, who helped initiate the project. “Given’s Stanford’s pioneering role in AI and our interdisciplinary mindset, we feel obliged and qualified to host a conversation about how artificial intelligence will affect our children and our children’s children.”

    Five leading academicians with diverse interests will join Horvitz and Altman in launching this effort. They are:

    • Barbara Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at HarvardUniversity and an expert on multi-agent collaborative systems;
    • Deirdre K. Mulligan, a lawyer and a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with technologists to advance privacy and other democratic values through technical design and policy;
    • Yoav Shoham, a professor of computer science at Stanford, who seeks to incorporate common sense into AI;
    • Tom Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor and chair of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, whose studies include how computers might learn to read the Web;
    • and Alan Mackworth, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia [emphases mine] and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, who built the world’s first soccer-playing robot.

    I wasn’t expecting to see a Canadian listed as a member of the AI100 standing committee and then I got another surprise (from the AI100 People webpage),

    Study Panels

    Study Panels are planned to convene every 5 years to examine some aspect of AI and its influences on society and the world. The first study panel was convened in late 2015 to study the likely impacts of AI on urban life by the year 2030, with a focus on typical North American cities.

    2015 Study Panel Members

    • Peter Stone, UT Austin, Chair
    • Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics
    • Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT
    • Ryan Calo, University of Washington
    • Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for AI
    • Greg Hager, Johns Hopkins University
    • Julia Hirschberg, Columbia University
    • Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, IIT Bombay
    • Ece Kamar, Microsoft
    • Sarit Kraus, Bar Ilan University
    • Kevin Leyton-Brown, [emphasis mine] UBC [University of British Columbia]
    • David Parkes, Harvard
    • Bill Press, UT Austin
    • AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Berkeley
    • Julie Shah, MIT
    • Milind Tambe, USC
    • Astro Teller, Google[X]
  • [emphases mine] and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, who built the world’s first soccer-playing robot.

I wasn’t expecting to see a Canadian listed as a member of the AI100 standing committee and then I got another surprise (from the AI100 People webpage),

Study Panels

Study Panels are planned to convene every 5 years to examine some aspect of AI and its influences on society and the world. The first study panel was convened in late 2015 to study the likely impacts of AI on urban life by the year 2030, with a focus on typical North American cities.

2015 Study Panel Members

  • Peter Stone, UT Austin, Chair
  • Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics
  • Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT
  • Ryan Calo, University of Washington
  • Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for AI
  • Greg Hager, Johns Hopkins University
  • Julia Hirschberg, Columbia University
  • Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, IIT Bombay
  • Ece Kamar, Microsoft
  • Sarit Kraus, Bar Ilan University
  • Kevin Leyton-Brown, [emphasis mine] UBC [University of British Columbia]
  • David Parkes, Harvard
  • Bill Press, UT Austin
  • AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Berkeley
  • Julie Shah, MIT
  • Milind Tambe, USC
  • Astro Teller, Google[X]

I see they have representation from Israel, India, and the private sector as well. Refreshingly, there’s more than one woman on the standing committee and in this first study group. It’s good to see these efforts at inclusiveness and I’m particularly delighted with the inclusion of an organization from Asia. All too often inclusiveness means Europe, especially the UK. So, it’s good (and I think important) to see a different range of representation.

As for the content of report, should anyone have opinions about it, please do let me know your thoughts in the blog comments.

Harvard University announced new Center on Nano-safety Research

The nano safety center at Harvard University (Massachusetts, US) is a joint center with the US National Institute of Environmental Health  Sciences according to an Aug. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs)—which are less than 100 nanometers (one millionth of a millimeter) in diameter—can make the colors in digital printer inks pop and help sunscreens better protect against radiation, among many other applications in industry and science. They may even help prevent infectious diseases. But as the technology becomes more widespread, questions remain about the potential risks that ENMs may pose to health and the environment.

Researchers at the new Harvard-NIEHS [US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] Nanosafety Research Center at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are working to understand the unique properties of ENMs—both beneficial and harmful—and to ultimately establish safety standards for the field.

An Aug. 16, 2016 Harvard University press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

“We want to help nanotechnology develop as a scientific and economic force while maintaining safeguards for public health,” said Center Director Philip Demokritou, associate professor of aerosol physics at Harvard Chan School. “If you understand the rules of nanobiology, you can design safer nanomaterials.”

ENMs can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact, and toxicological studies have shown that some can penetrate cells and tissues and potentially cause biochemical damage. Because the field of nanoparticle science is relatively new, no standards currently exist for assessing the health risks of exposure to ENMs—or even for how studies of nano-biological interactions should be conducted.

Much of the work of the new Center will focus on building a fundamental understanding of why some ENMs are potentially more harmful than others. The team will also establish a “reference library” of ENMs, each with slightly varied properties, which will be utilized in nanotoxicology research across the country to assess safety. This will allow researchers to pinpoint exactly what aspect of an ENM’s properties may impact health. The researchers will also work to develop standardized methods for nanotoxicology studies evaluating the safety of nanomaterials.

The Center was established with a $4 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) last month, and is the only nanosafety research center to receive NIEHS funding for the next five years. It will also play a coordinating role with existing and future NIEHS nanotoxicology research projects nantionwide. Scientists from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), MIT, University of Maine, and University of Florida will collaborate on the new effort.

The Center builds on the existing Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at Harvard Chan School, established by Demokritou and Joseph Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, in the School’s Department of Environmental Health in 2010.

A July 5, 2016 Harvard University press release announcing the $4M grant provides more information about which ENMs are to be studied,

The main focus of the new HSPH-NIEHS Center is to bring together  scientists from across disciplines- material science, chemistry, exposure assessment, risk assessment, nanotoxicology and nanobiology- to assess the potential  environmental Health and safety (EHS) implications of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

The $4 million dollar HSPH based Center  which is the only Nanosafety Research  Center to be funded by NIEHS this funding cycle, … The new HSPH-NIEHS Nanosafety Center builds upon the nano-related infrastructure in [the] collaborating Universities, developed over the past 10 years, which includes an inter-disciplinary research group of faculty, research staff and students, as well as state-of-the-art platforms for high throughput synthesis of ENMs, including metal and metal oxides, cutting edge 2D/3D ENMs such as CNTs [carbon nanotubes] and graphene, nanocellulose, and advanced nanocomposites, [emphasis mine] coupled with innovative tools to assess the fate and transport of ENMs in biological systems, statistical and exposure assessment tools, and novel in vitro and in vivo platforms for nanotoxicology research.

“Our mission is to integrate material/exposure/chemical sciences and nanotoxicology-nanobiology   to facilitate assessment of potential risks from emerging nanomaterials.  In doing so, we are bringing together the material synthesis/applications and nanotoxicology communities and other stakeholders including industry,   policy makers and the general public to maximize innovation and growth and minimize environmental and public health risks from nanotechnology”, quoted by  Dr Philip Demokritou, …

This effort certainly falls in line with the current emphasis on interdisciplinary research and creating standards and protocols for researching the toxicology of engineered nanomaterials.

Just swallow your battery, eh? Ingestible batteries

Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D., is developing an edible battery made with melanin and dissolvable materials. Courtesy of: Bettinger lab

Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D., is developing an edible battery made with melanin and dissolvable materials. Courtesy of: Bettinger lab

An Aug. 23, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a session at the 252nd American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting held Aug. 21 – 25, 2016 in Philadelphia,

Non-toxic, edible batteries could one day power ingestible devices for diagnosing and treating disease. One team reports new progress toward that goal with their batteries made with melanin pigments, naturally found in the skin, hair and eyes.

“For decades, people have been envisioning that one day, we would have edible electronic devices to diagnose or treat disease,” says Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D. “But if you want to take a device every day, you have to think about toxicity issues. That’s when we have to think about biologically derived materials that could replace some of these things you might find in a RadioShack.”

An Aug. 23, 2016 ACS news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, further describes the work featured in the ACS meeting session,

About 20 years ago, scientists did develop a battery-operated ingestible camera as a complementary tool to endoscopies. It can image places in the digestive system that are inaccessible to the traditional endoscope. But it is designed to pass through the body and be excreted. For a single use, the risk that the camera with a conventional battery will get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract is small. But the chances of something going wrong would increase unacceptably if doctors wanted to use it more frequently on a single patient.

The camera and some implantable devices such as pacemakers run on batteries containing toxic components that are sequestered away from contact with the body. But for low-power, repeat applications such as drug-delivery devices that are meant to be swallowed, non-toxic and degradable batteries would be ideal.

“The beauty is that by definition an ingestible, degradable device is in the body for no longer than 20 hours or so,” Bettinger says. “Even if you have marginal performance, which we do, that’s all you need.”

While he doesn’t have to worry about longevity, toxicity is an issue. To minimize the potential harm of future ingestible devices, Bettinger’s team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) decided to turn to melanins and other naturally occurring compounds. In our skin, hair and eyes, melanins absorb ultraviolet light to quench free radicals and protect us from damage. They also happen to bind and unbind metallic ions. “We thought, this is basically a battery,” Bettinger says.

Building on this idea, the researchers experimented with battery designs that use melanin pigments at either the positive or negative terminals; various electrode materials such as manganese oxide and sodium titanium phosphate; and cations such as copper and iron that the body uses for normal functioning.

“We found basically that they work,” says Hang-Ah Park, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at CMU. “The exact numbers depend on the configuration, but as an example, we can power a 5 milliWatt device for up to 18 hours using 600 milligrams of active melanin material as a cathode.”

Although the capacity of a melanin battery is low relative to lithium-ion, it would be high enough to power an ingestible drug-delivery or sensing device. For example, Bettinger envisions using his group’s battery for sensing gut microbiome changes and responding with a release of medicine, or for delivering bursts of a vaccine over several hours before degrading.

In parallel with the melanin batteries, the team is also making edible batteries with other biomaterials such as pectin, a natural compound from plants used as a gelling agent in jams and jellies. Next, they plan on developing packaging materials that will safely deliver the battery to the stomach.

When these batteries will be incorporated into biomedical devices is uncertain, but Bettinger has already found another application for them. His lab uses the batteries to probe the structure and chemistry of the melanin pigments themselves to better understand how they work.

I previously wrote about an ingestible battery in a November 23, 2015 posting featuring work from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Self-shading electrochromic windows from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It’s been a while since I’ve had a story about electrochromic windows and I’ve begun to despair that they will ever reach the marketplace. Happily, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has supplied a ray of light (intentional wordplay). An Aug. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement,

A team of researchers at MIT has developed a new way of making windows that can switch from transparent to opaque, potentially saving energy by blocking sunlight on hot days and thus reducing air-conditioning costs. While other systems for causing glass to darken do exist, the new method offers significant advantages by combining rapid response times and low power needs.

Once the glass is switched from clear to dark, or vice versa, the new system requires little to no power to maintain its new state; unlike other materials, it only needs electricity when it’s time to switch back again.

An Aug. 11, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the technology in more detail,

The new discovery uses electrochromic materials, which change their color and transparency in response to an applied voltage, Dinca [MIT professor of chemistry Mircea Dinca] explains. These are quite different from photochromic materials, such as those found in some eyeglasses that become darker when the light gets brighter. Such materials tend to have much slower response times and to undergo a smaller change in their levels of opacity.

Existing electrochromic materials suffer from similar limitations and have found only niche applications. For example, Boeing 787 aircraft have electrochromic windows that get darker to prevent bright sunlight from glaring through the cabin. The windows can be darkened by turning on the voltage, Dinca says, but “when you flip the switch, it actually takes a few minutes for the window to turn dark. Obviously, you want that to be faster.”

The reason for that slowness is that the changes within the material rely on a movement of electrons — an electric current — that gives the whole window a negative charge. Positive ions then move through the material to restore the electrical balance, creating the color-changing effect. But while electrons flow rapidly through materials, ions move much more slowly, limiting the overall reaction speed.

The MIT team overcame that by using sponge-like materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which can conduct both electrons and ions at very high speeds. Such materials have been used for about 20 years for their ability to store gases within their structure, but the MIT team was the first to harness them for their electrical and optical properties.

The other problem with existing versions of self-shading materials, Dinca says, is that “it’s hard to get a material that changes from completely transparent to, let’s say, completely black.” Even the windows in the 787 can only change to a dark shade of green, rather than becoming opaque.

In previous research on MOFs, Dinca and his students had made material that could turn from clear to shades of blue or green, but in this newly reported work they have achieved the long-sought goal of producing a coating that can go all the way from perfectly clear to nearly black (achieved by blending two complementary colors, green and red). The new material is made by combining two chemical compounds, an organic material and a metal salt. Once mixed, these self-assemble into a thin film of the switchable material.

“It’s this combination of these two, of a relatively fast switching time and a nearly black color, that has really got people excited,” Dinca says.

The new windows have the potential, he says, to do much more than just preventing glare. “These could lead to pretty significant energy savings,” he says, by drastically reducing the need for air conditioning in buildings with many windows in hot climates. “You could just flip a switch when the sun shines through the window, and turn it dark,” or even automatically make that whole side of the building go dark all at once, he says.

While the properties of the material have now been demonstrated in a laboratory setting, the team’s next step is to make a small-scale device for further testing: a 1-inch-square sample, to demonstrate the principle in action for potential investors in the technology, and to help determine what the manufacturing costs for such windows would be.

Further testing is also needed, Dinca says, to demonstrate what they have determined from preliminary testing: that once the switch is flipped and the material changes color, it requires no further power to maintain its new state. No extra power is needed until the switch is flipped to turn the material back to its former state, whether clear or opaque. Many existing electrochromic materials, by contrast, require a continuous voltage input.

In addition to smart windows, Dinca says, the material could also be used for some kinds of low-power displays, similar to displays like electronic ink (used in devices such as the Kindle and based on MIT-developed technology) but based on a completely different approach.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the research was partly funded by an organization in a region where such light-blocking windows would be particularly useful: The Masdar Institute, based in the United Arab Emirates, through a cooperative agreement with MIT. The research also received support from the U.S. Department of Energy, through the Center for Excitonics, an Energy Frontier Center.

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

Transparent-to-Dark Electrochromic Behavior in Naphthalene-Diimide-Based Mesoporous MOF-74 Analogs by Khalid AlKaabi, Casey R. Wade, Mircea Dincă. Chem, Volume 1, Issue 2, 11 August 2016, Pages 264–272 doi:10.1016/j.chempr.2016.06.013

This paper is behind a paywall.

For those curious about the windows, there’s this .gif from MIT,

MIT_ElectrochromicWindows

Movies and science, science, science (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 concerned the soon-to-be-released movie, Hidden Figures and a film which has yet to start production, Photograph 51 (about Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the double helix structure DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]). Now for Part 2:

A matter of blood, Theranos, and Elizabeth Holmes

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I’d heard of Theranos. Given that I have featured various kinds of cutting edge diagnostic tests here, it was a fair enough question. Some  of my first questions to her were about the science. My friend had read about the situation in The Economist where the focus of the story (which I later read) was about venture capital. I got back to my friend and said that if they hadn’t published any scientific papers, I most likely would not have stumbled across them. Since then I’ve heard much more about Theranos but it seems there’s not much scientific information to be had from the company.

Reportedly, US film star Jennifer Lawrence is set to star, from a June 10, 2016 posting by Lainey (at Lainey Gossip; Note: A link has been removed),

Deadline reported yesterday [June 9, 2016] that Jennifer Lawrence will star in Adam McKay’s upcoming film about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes was basically the Jennifer Lawrence of Silicon Valley after inventing what she claimed to be a revolutionary blood testing system. Instead of submitting full vials of blood for limited testing, her product promised more efficiency and quicker results with just a pinprick. You can imagine how that would change the health care industry.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal investigated the viability of Theranos’s business plan, exposing major problems in the company’s infrastructure. Elizabeth Holmes went from being called the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, the millennial in a turtleneck, to a possible fraud. It’s a fascinating story. …

In a July 16, 2016 article The Economist provides an update to the evolving Theranos/Holmes story,

FIRST they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of the sudden you change the world,” said Elizabeth Holmes as troubles mounted for her blood-testing startup, Theranos, last year. Things look ever less likely to go beyond the fighting stage.

On July 7th [2016] a government regulator, the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Ms Holmes would be barred from owning or running a laboratory for two years. It will also revoke her company’s licence to operate one of two laboratories where it conducts tests. As The Economist went to press the firm was due to reply to a letter from Congress, which asked how, exactly, Theranos is going to handle the tens of thousands of patients who were given incorrect test results. Even so, Ms Holmes looks set to remain in position even as the situation deteriorates around a firm that once commanded a multi-billion-dollar valuation.

These may be some of the last twists in a story which will be turned into a Hollywood film by the director of “The Big Short”.

For anyone wondering how a movie could be made when the story has come to any kind of resolution, there’s this from a June 24, 2016 posting by David Bruggeman for his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Since last I wrote about a possible film about the medical device/testing company Theranos, a studio has successfully bid on the project.  Legendary Studios won an auction on the film rights, beating out 9 other offers on the project, which has Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.  Adam McKay would write the script and direct the project, duplicating his roles on the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short.  The film now has a preliminary title of Bad Blood.  It is certainly too early to tell if the Taylor Swift song of the same name will be used in the movie.

While getting a studio offer is important to the film getting produced, what is perhaps as interesting to our readers is that a book is connected to the film deal.  Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning writer John Carreyrou, who has written extensively on Theranos in The Wall Street Journal, will be writing a book that (presumably) serves as the basis for the script.  This follows the development arc for The Big Short, for which McKay shares an Adapted Screenplay Oscar (in addition to his nomination for directing the film)

So, are they going to wait until Holmes is either finally vindicated or vilified before going to film? Meanwhile, Holmes continues in a quest to save her company (from an Aug. 1, 2016 article for Fast Company by Christina Farr titled: Scientists Wanted Transparency From Theranos, But Got A Product Launch Instead (Note: A link has been removed),

Theranos once promised to revolutionize the blood testing industry. But its methodology remains secretive, despite calls for transparency from the scientific community. Now, it is facing federal investigations, private litigation, voided tests, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is banned from operating a lab for two years.

But all that was entirely glossed over today at the company’s much-awaited first presentation to the scientific community at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry’s conference in Philadelphia.

In an hour-long presentation (you can review the slides here), Holmes failed to discuss the fate of the company’s proprietary blood-testing technology, Edison, or address any of the controversy. Instead, she skipped right to pitching a new product, dubbed the MiniLab.

In fairness to Theranos, this was a positive step as the company did provide some internal data to show that the company could perform a small number of tests. But despite that, many took to social media to protest its failure to address and acknowledge its shortcomings before moving on to a new product.

“Clearly, the scientific and medical community was hoping for a data-driven discussion today, and instead got a new product announcement,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist and clinical informatics fellow at Harvard Medical School.

In an emailed response to Fast Company, a Theranos company spokesperson did not say whether components of Edison would be used in the miniLAB, but instead stressed that it’s one early iteration of the technology. “The miniLab is the latest iteration of the company’s testing platform and an evolution of Theranos’ technology,” they said.

Farr describes the MiniLab and notes that it is entering a competitive market,

The new product, the MiniLab, essentially takes equipment used in a standard lab and puts it in a single box. Holmes refers to this technique as “decentralizing the lab,” as in theory, clinicians could use this as an alternative to sending samples to a centralized facility and awaiting results. “Think of it as being a huge diagnostics lab that has been condensed down to the size of a microwave,” the company’s website explains.

..

But scientists are questioning whether the MiniLab technology is a breakthrough. The current market is already fairly saturated: Abbott’s iStat system, for instance, is a handheld device for clinicians to test patients for a plethora of common tests. Roche just received FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] clearance for its Cobas device, which can test for ailments like the flu and some strep infections in under 20 minutes. And Theranos competitors Quest and Labcorp already operate versions of this type of equipment in their own labs.

“I can’t imagine why they’re wasting their time,” says MIT-trained material scientist and biotech entrepreneur Kaveh Milaninia by phone. …

I recommend reading Farr’s article in its entirety as she provides more detail and analysis as to just how competitive the market Theranos proposes entering with its MiniLab actually is.

An Aug. 31, 2016 article by Lydia Ramsey for Slate.com the most recent update on the Theranos situation,

Theranos is withdrawing its bid for FDA approval of a diagnostic test for Zika that they announced earlier in August, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

Theranos confirmed to Business Insider that the test has been withdrawn, but said the company has plans to resubmit it.

John Carreyrou and Christopher Weaver report that an FDA inspection found that, as part of a study to validate the new test, the company had collected some data without a patient safety plan in place that was approved by an institutional review board.

“We hope that our decision to withdraw the Zika submission voluntarily is further evidence of our commitment to engage positively with the agency. We are confident in the Zika tests and will resubmit it,” Theranos vice president of regulatory and quality Dave Wurtz said in a statement emailed to Business Insider. Wurtz joined the company in July [2016].

Getting back to the point of my story at the beginning of this piece, it seems that Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes have not been as forthcoming with scientific data as is common in the biotech field. Interestingly, I read somewhere that the top 10 venture capitalists in the biotech field had not invested a penny in Theranos. The money had come from venture capitalists expert in other fields. (If you can confirm or know differently, please let me know in the comments section.)

In its favour, the company does appear to be attempting to address its shortcomings.

In any event, all these goings on should make for an interesting script writing challenge.

Bits and bobs of science and movies (The Man Who Knew Infinity, Ghostbusters, and Imagine Science Films)

The Man Who Knew Infinity had its debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. I haven’t seen it at any movie houses here (Vancouver, Canada) yet but a film trailer featuring its star, Dev Patel, was released in Feb. 2016,

Ramanujan must have been quite the mathematician, given the tenor of the times. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a 2015 British biographical drama film based on the 1991 book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. The film stars Dev Patel as the real-life Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematician who after growing up poor in Madras, India, earns admittance to Cambridge University during World War I, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G. H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons despite Hardy being only 10 years older than Ramanujan).

Filming began in August 2014 at Trinity College, Cambridge.[4] The film had its world premiere as a gala presentation at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival,[1][5] and was selected as the opening gala of the 2015 Zurich Film Festival.[6] It also played other film festivals including Singapore International Film Festival[7] and Dubai International Film Festival.[8]

Distinguished mathematicians Manjul Bhargava and Ken Ono are Associate Producers of the film.[9] Ono, the mathematics consultant, is a Guggenheim Fellow, and Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal.

Next up, Ghostbusters, the all woman edition. While it hasn’t become the blockbuster some were hoping for, I have some hope that it will become a quiet blockbuster over time. As I wait there is this information about how Ghostbuster: The All Woman Edition was grounded in real science. From a July 18, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Janet Conrad and Lindley Winslow, colleagues in the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Department of Physics and researchers in MIT’s Lab for Nuclear Science, were key consultants for the all-female reboot of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy that is opening in theaters today. And the creative side of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—will be on full display.

A July 16, 2016 MIT news release, which originated the news item expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Kristin Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, a no-nonsense physicist at Columbia University, is all the more convincing because of Conrad’s toys. Her office features demos and other actual trappings from Conrad’s workspace: books, posters, and scientific models. She even created detailed academic papers and grant applications for use as desk props.

“I loved the original ‘Ghostbusters,’” says Conrad. “And I thought the switch to four women, the girl-power concept, was a great way to change it up for the reboot. Plus I love all of the stuff in my office. I was happy to have my books become stars.”

Conrad developed an affection for MIT while absorbing another piece of pop culture: “Doonesbury.” She remembers one cartoon strip featuring a girl doing Psets. She is discouraged until a robot comes to her door and beeps. All is right with the world again. The exchange made an impression. “Only at MIT do robots come by your door to cheer you up,” she thought.

Like her colleague, Winslow describes mainstream role models as powerful, particularly when fantasy elements in film and television enhance their childhood appeal. She, too, loved “Ghostbusters” as a kid. “I watched the original many times,” she recalls. “And my sister had a stuffed Slimer.”

Winslow jokes that she “probably put in too much time” helping with the remake. Indeed, Wired magazine recently detailed that: “In one scene in the movie, Wiig’s Gilbert stands in front of a lecture hall, speaking on challenges of reconciling quantum mechanics with Einstein’s gravity. On the whiteboards, behind her, a series of equations tells the same story: a self-contained narrative, written by Winslow and later transcribed on set, illustrating the failure of a once-promising physics theory called SU(5).”

Movie reviewers have been floored by the level of set detail. Also deserving of serious credit is James Maxwell, a postdoc at the Lab for Nuclear Science during the period he worked on “Ghostbusters.” He is now a staff scientist at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.

Maxwell crafted realistic schematics of how proton packs, ghost traps, and other paranormal equipment might work. “I recalled myself as a kid, poring over the technical schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers. I wanted to be sure that boys and especially girls of today could pore over my schematics, plug the components into Wikipedia, and find out about real tools that experimental physicists use to study the workings of the universe.”

He too hopes this behind-the-scenes MIT link with a Hollywood blockbuster will get people thinking. “I hope that it shows a little bit of the giddy side of science and of MIT; the laughs that can come with a spectacular experimental failure or an unexpected break-through.”

The movie depicts the worlds of science and engineering, as drawn from MIT, with remarkable conviction, says Maxwell. “So much of the feel of the movie, and to a great degree the personalities of the characters, is conveyed by the props,” he says.

Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, an eccentric engineer, is nearly inseparable from, as Maxwell says, “a mess of wires and magnets and lasers” — a pile of equipment replicated from his MIT lab. When she talks proton packs, her lines are drawn from his work.

Keep an eye out for treasures hidden in the props. For instance, Wiig’s character is the recipient of the Maria Goeppert Mayer “MGM Award” from the American Physical Society, which hangs on her office wall. Conrad and Winslow say the honor holds a special place in their hearts.

“We both think MGM was inspirational. She did amazing things at a time when it was tough for women to do anything in physics,” says Conrad. “She is one of our favorite women in physics,” adds Winslow. Clearly, some of the film’s props and scientific details reflect their personal predilections but Hollywood — and the nation — is also getting a real taste of MIT.

Finally and strictly speaking not a movie but it is an online magazine about science-based movies according to David Bruggeman’s Aug. 6, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

LaboCine is an online film magazine from the people behind Imagine Science Films.  The films in each issue come from artists and scientists from around the world.  They are not restricted to documentary films, and mix live-action, animated and computer film styles.

The first issue of LaboCine is now online, so you can view the short films, which are organized around a common theme.  For August the theme is Model Organisms. …

You find the LaboCine magazine here and Imagine Science Films here. Btw, Raewyn Turner (NZ artist) has submitted our filmpoem, Steep (1) : A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles to the 9th Imagine Science Festival to be held Oct. 14-21, 2016 in New York City.

And that is it!

Here’s Part 1 for those who missed it.

Sutures that can gather data wirelessly

Are sutures which gather data hackable? It’s a little early to start thinking about that issue as this seems to be brand new research. A July 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily tells more,

For the first time, researchers led by Tufts University engineers have integrated nano-scale sensors, electronics and microfluidics into threads — ranging from simple cotton to sophisticated synthetics — that can be sutured through multiple layers of tissue to gather diagnostic data wirelessly in real time, according to a paper published online July 18 [2016] in Microsystems & Nanoengineering. The research suggests that the thread-based diagnostic platform could be an effective substrate for a new generation of implantable diagnostic devices and smart wearable systems.

A July 18, 2016 Tufts University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The researchers used a variety of conductive threads that were dipped in physical and chemical sensing compounds and connected to wireless electronic circuitry to create a flexible platform that they sutured into tissue in rats as well as in vitro. The threads collected data on tissue health (e.g. pressure, stress, strain and temperature), pH and glucose levels that can be used to determine such things as how a wound is healing, whether infection is emerging, or whether the body’s chemistry is out of balance. The results were transmitted wirelessly to a cell phone and computer.

The three-dimensional platform is able to conform to complex structures such as organs, wounds or orthopedic implants.

While more study is needed in a number of areas, including investigation of long-term biocompatibility, researchers said initial results raise the possibility of optimizing patient-specific treatments.

“The ability to suture a thread-based diagnostic device intimately in a tissue or organ environment in three dimensions adds a unique feature that is not available with other flexible diagnostic platforms,” said Sameer Sonkusale, Ph.D., corresponding author on the paper and director of the interdisciplinary Nano Lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts School of Engineering. “We think thread-based devices could potentially be used as smart sutures for surgical implants, smart bandages to monitor wound healing, or integrated with textile or fabric as personalized health monitors and point-of-care diagnostics.”

Until now, the structure of substrates for implantable devices has essentially been two-dimensional, limiting their usefulness to flat tissue such as skin, according to the paper. Additionally, the materials in those substrates are expensive and require specialized processing.

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

A toolkit of thread-based microfluidics, sensors, and electronics for 3D tissue embedding for medical diagnostics by Pooria Mostafalu, Mohsen Akbari, Kyle A. Alberti, Qiaobing Xu, Ali Khademhosseini, & Sameer R. Sonkusale. Microsystems & Nanoengineering 2, Article number: 16039 (2016) doi:10.1038/micronano.2016.39 Published online 18 July 2016

This paper is open access.

Viewing RNA (ribonucleic acid) more closely at the nanoscale with expansion microscopy (EXM) and off-the-shelf parts

A close cousin to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a communicator according to a July 4, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describing how a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) managed to image RNA more precisely,

Cells contain thousands of messenger RNA molecules, which carry copies of DNA’s genetic instructions to the rest of the cell. MIT engineers have now developed a way to visualize these molecules in higher resolution than previously possible in intact tissues, allowing researchers to precisely map the location of RNA throughout cells.

Key to the new technique is expanding the tissue before imaging it. By making the sample physically larger, it can be imaged with very high resolution using ordinary microscopes commonly found in research labs.

“Now we can image RNA with great spatial precision, thanks to the expansion process, and we also can do it more easily in large intact tissues,” says Ed Boyden, an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, a member of MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of a paper describing the technique in the July 4, 2016 issue of Nature Methods.

A July 4, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why scientists want a better look at RNA and how the MIT team accomplished the task,

Studying the distribution of RNA inside cells could help scientists learn more about how cells control their gene expression and could also allow them to investigate diseases thought to be caused by failure of RNA to move to the correct location.

Boyden and colleagues first described the underlying technique, known as expansion microscopy (ExM), last year, when they used it to image proteins inside large samples of brain tissue. In a paper appearing in Nature Biotechnology on July 4, the MIT team has now presented a new version of the technology that employs off-the-shelf chemicals, making it easier for researchers to use.

MIT graduate students Fei Chen and Asmamaw Wassie are the lead authors of the Nature Methods paper, and Chen and graduate student Paul Tillberg are the lead authors of the Nature Biotechnology paper.

A simpler process

The original expansion microscopy technique is based on embedding tissue samples in a polymer that swells when water is added. This tissue enlargement allows researchers to obtain images with a resolution of around 70 nanometers, which was previously possible only with very specialized and expensive microscopes. However, that method posed some challenges because it requires generating a complicated chemical tag consisting of an antibody that targets a specific protein, linked to both a fluorescent dye and a chemical anchor that attaches the whole complex to a highly absorbent polymer known as polyacrylate. Once the targets are labeled, the researchers break down the proteins that hold the tissue sample together, allowing it to expand uniformly as the polyacrylate gel swells.

In their new studies, to eliminate the need for custom-designed labels, the researchers used a different molecule to anchor the targets to the gel before digestion. This molecule, which the researchers dubbed AcX, is commercially available and therefore makes the process much simpler.

AcX can be modified to anchor either proteins or RNA to the gel. In the Nature Biotechnology study, the researchers used it to anchor proteins, and they also showed that the technique works on tissue that has been previously labeled with either fluorescent antibodies or proteins such as green fluorescent protein (GFP).

“This lets you use completely off-the-shelf parts, which means that it can integrate very easily into existing workflows,” Tillberg says. “We think that it’s going to lower the barrier significantly for people to use the technique compared to the original ExM.”

Using this approach, it takes about an hour to scan a piece of tissue 500 by 500 by 200 microns, using a light sheet fluorescence microscope. The researchers showed that this technique works for many types of tissues, including brain, pancreas, lung, and spleen.

Imaging RNA

In the Nature Methods paper, the researchers used the same kind of anchoring molecule but modified it to target RNA instead. All of the RNAs in the sample are anchored to the gel, so they stay in their original locations throughout the digestion and expansion process.

After the tissue is expanded, the researchers label specific RNA molecules using a process known as fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), which was originally developed in the early 1980s and is widely used. This allows researchers to visualize the location of specific RNA molecules at high resolution, in three dimensions, in large tissue samples.

This enhanced spatial precision could allow scientists to explore many questions about how RNA contributes to cellular function. For example, a longstanding question in neuroscience is how neurons rapidly change the strength of their connections to store new memories or skills. One hypothesis is that RNA molecules encoding proteins necessary for plasticity are stored in cell compartments close to the synapses, poised to be translated into proteins when needed.

With the new system, it should be possible to determine exactly which RNA molecules are located near the synapses, waiting to be translated.

“People have found hundreds of these locally translated RNAs, but it’s hard to know where exactly they are and what they’re doing,” Chen says. “This technique would be useful to study that.”

Boyden’s lab is also interested in using this technology to trace the connections between neurons and to classify different subtypes of neurons based on which genes they are expressing.

There’s a brief (30 secs.), silent video illustrating the work (something about a ‘Brainbow Hippocampus’) made available by MIT,


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

Nanoscale imaging of RNA with expansion microscopy by Fei Chen, Asmamaw T Wassie, Allison J Cote, Anubhav Sinha, Shahar Alon, Shoh Asano, Evan R Daugharthy, Jae-Byum Chang, Adam Marblestone, George M Church, Arjun Raj, & Edward S Boyden.     Nature Methods (2016)  doi:10.1038/nmeth.3899 Published online 04 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Wireless, wearable carbon nanotube-based gas sensors for soldiers

Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are hoping to make wireless, toxic gas detectors the size of badges. From a June 30, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

MIT researchers have developed low-cost chemical sensors, made from chemically altered carbon nanotubes, that enable smartphones or other wireless devices to detect trace amounts of toxic gases.

Using the sensors, the researchers hope to design lightweight, inexpensive radio-frequency identification (RFID) badges to be used for personal safety and security. Such badges could be worn by soldiers on the battlefield to rapidly detect the presence of chemical weapons — such as nerve gas or choking agents — and by people who work around hazardous chemicals prone to leakage.

A June 30, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the technology further,

“Soldiers have all this extra equipment that ends up weighing way too much and they can’t sustain it,” says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and lead author on a paper describing the sensors that was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “We have something that would weigh less than a credit card. And [soldiers] already have wireless technologies with them, so it’s something that can be readily integrated into a soldier’s uniform that can give them a protective capacity.”

The sensor is a circuit loaded with carbon nanotubes, which are normally highly conductive but have been wrapped in an insulating material that keeps them in a highly resistive state. When exposed to certain toxic gases, the insulating material breaks apart, and the nanotubes become significantly more conductive. This sends a signal that’s readable by a smartphone with near-field communication (NFC) technology, which allows devices to transmit data over short distances.

The sensors are sensitive enough to detect less than 10 parts per million of target toxic gases in about five seconds. “We are matching what you could do with benchtop laboratory equipment, such as gas chromatographs and spectrometers, that is far more expensive and requires skilled operators to use,” Swager says.

Moreover, the sensors each cost about a nickel to make; roughly 4 million can be made from about 1 gram of the carbon nanotube materials. “You really can’t make anything cheaper,” Swager says. “That’s a way of getting distributed sensing into many people’s hands.”

The paper’s other co-authors are from Swager’s lab: Shinsuke Ishihara, a postdoc who is also a member of the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics at the National Institute for Materials Science, in Japan; and PhD students Joseph Azzarelli and Markrete Krikorian.

Wrapping nanotubes

In recent years, Swager’s lab has developed other inexpensive, wireless sensors, called chemiresistors, that have detected spoiled meat and the ripeness of fruit, among other things [go to the end of this post for links to previous posts about Swager’s work]. All are designed similarly, with carbon nanotubes that are chemically modified, so their ability to carry an electric current changes when exposed to a target chemical.

This time, the researchers designed sensors highly sensitive to “electrophilic,” or electron-loving, chemical substances, which are often toxic and used for chemical weapons.

To do so, they created a new type of metallo-supramolecular polymer, a material made of metals binding to polymer chains. The polymer acts as an insulation, wrapping around each of the sensor’s tens of thousands of single-walled carbon nanotubes, separating them and keeping them highly resistant to electricity. But electrophilic substances trigger the polymer to disassemble, allowing the carbon nanotubes to once again come together, which leads to an increase in conductivity.

In their study, the researchers drop-cast the nanotube/polymer material onto gold electrodes, and exposed the electrodes to diethyl chlorophosphate, a skin irritant and reactive simulant of nerve gas. Using a device that measures electric current, they observed a 2,000 percent increase in electrical conductivity after five seconds of exposure. Similar conductivity increases were observed for trace amounts of numerous other electrophilic substances, such as thionyl chloride (SOCl2), a reactive simulant in choking agents. Conductivity was significantly lower in response to common volatile organic compounds, and exposure to most nontarget chemicals actually increased resistivity.

Creating the polymer was a delicate balancing act but critical to the design, Swager says. As a polymer, the material needs to hold the carbon nanotubes apart. But as it disassembles, its individual monomers need to interact more weakly, letting the nanotubes regroup. “We hit this sweet spot where it only works when it’s all hooked together,” Swager says.

Resistance is readable

To build their wireless system, the researchers created an NFC tag that turns on when its electrical resistance dips below a certain threshold.

Smartphones send out short pulses of electromagnetic fields that resonate with an NFC tag at radio frequency, inducing an electric current, which relays information to the phone. But smartphones can’t resonate with tags that have a resistance higher than 1 ohm.

The researchers applied their nanotube/polymer material to the NFC tag’s antenna. When exposed to 10 parts per million of SOCl2 for five seconds, the material’s resistance dropped to the point that the smartphone could ping the tag. Basically, it’s an “on/off indicator” to determine if toxic gas is present, Swager says.

According to the researchers, such a wireless system could be used to detect leaks in Li-SOCl2 (lithium thionyl chloride) batteries, which are used in medical instruments, fire alarms, and military systems.

The next step, Swager says, is to test the sensors on live chemical agents, outside of the lab, which are more dispersed and harder to detect, especially at trace levels. In the future, there’s also hope for developing a mobile app that could make more sophisticated measurements of the signal strength of an NFC tag: Differences in the signal will mean higher or lower concentrations of a toxic gas. “But creating new cell phone apps is a little beyond us right now,” Swager says. “We’re chemists.”

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

Ultratrace Detection of Toxic Chemicals: Triggered Disassembly of Supramolecular Nanotube Wrappers by Shinsuke Ishihara, Joseph M. Azzarelli, Markrete Krikorian, and Timothy M. Swager. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b03869 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are links to other posts about Swager’s work featured here previously:

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food (April 23, 2015 post)

Smart suits for US soldiers—an update of sorts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Feb. 25, 2014 post)

Come, see my etchings … they detect poison gases (Oct. 9, 2012 post)

Soldiers sniff overripe fruit (May 1, 2012 post)

US Army offers course on nanotechnology

As you might expect, the US Army course on nanotechnology stresses the importance of nanotechnology for the military, according to a June 16, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

If there is one lesson to glean from Picatinny Arsenal’s new course in nanomaterials, it’s this: never underestimate the power of small.

Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic, molecular, or supermolecular scale. The end result can be found in our everyday products, such as stained glass [This is a reference to the red glass found in churches from the Middle Ages. More about this later in the posting], sunscreen, cellphones, and pharmaceutical products.

Other examples are in U.S. Army items such as vehicle armor, Soldier uniforms, power sources, and weaponry. All living things also can be considered united forms of nanotechnology produced by the forces of nature.

“People tend to think that nanotechnology is all about these little robots roaming around, fixing the environment or repairing damage to your body, and for many reasons that’s just unrealistic,” said Rajen Patel, a senior engineer within the Energetics and Warheads Manufacturing Technology Division, or EWMTD.

The division is part of the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center or ARDEC.

A June 15, 2016 ARDEC news release by Cassandra Mainiero, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“For me, nanotechnology means getting materials to have these properties that you wouldn’t expect them to have.” [Patel]

The subject can be separated into multiple types (nanomedicine, nanomachines, nanoelectronics, nanocomposites, nanophotonics and more), which can benefit areas, such as communications, medicine, environment remediation, and manufacturing.

Nanomaterials are defined as materials that have at least one dimension in the 1-100 nm range (there are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch.) To provide some size perspective: comparing a nanometer to a meter is like comparing a soccer ball to the earth.

Picatinny’s nanomaterials class focuses on nanomaterials’ distinguishing qualities, such as their optical, electronic, thermal and mechanical properties–and teaches how manipulating them in a weapon can benefit the warfighter [soldier].

While you could learn similar information at a college course, Patel argues that Picatinny’s nanomaterial class is nothing like a university class.

This is because Picatinny’s nanomaterials class focuses on applied, rather than theoretical nanotechnology, using the arsenal as its main source of examples.

“We talk about things like what kind of properties you get, how to make materials, places you might expect to see nanotechnology within the Army,” explained Patel.

The class is taught at the Armament University. Each class lasts three days. The last one was held in February.

Each class includes approximately 25 students and provides an overview of nanotechnology, covering topics, such as its history, early pioneers in the field, and everyday items that rely on nanotechnology.

Additionally, the course covers how those same concepts apply at Picatinny (for electronics, sensors, energetics, robotics, insensitive munitions, and more) and the major difficulties with experimenting and manufacturing nanotechnology.

Moreover, the class involves guest talks from Picatinny engineers and scientists, such as Dan Kaplan, Christopher Haines, and Venkataraman Swaminathan as well as tours of Picatinny facilities like the Nanotechnology Center and the Explosives Research Laboratory.

It also includes lectures from guest speakers, such as Gordon Thomas from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who spoke about nanomaterials and diabetes research.

A CLASSROOM COINCIDENCE

Relatively new, the nanomaterials class launched in January 2015. It was pioneered by Patel after he attended an instructional course on teaching at the Armament University, where he met Erin Williams, a technical training analyst at the university.

“At the Armament University, we’re always trying to think of, ‘What new areas of interest should we offer to help our workforce? What forward reaching technologies are needed?’ One topic that came up was nanotechnology,” said Williams about how the nanomaterials class originated.

“I started to do research on the subject, how it might be geared toward Picatinny, and trying to think of ways to organize the class. Then, I enrolled in the instructional course on teaching, where I just so happen to be sitting across from Dr. Rajen Patel, who not only knew about nanotechnology, but taught a few seminars at NJIT, where he did his doctorate,” explained Williams. “I couldn’t believe the coincidence! So, I asked him if he would be interested in teaching a class and he said ‘Yes!'”

“After the first [nanomaterials] class, one of the students came up to me and said ‘This was the best course I’ve ever been to on this arsenal,'” added Williams. “…This is really how Picatinny shines as a team: when you meet people and utilize your knowledge to benefit the organization.”

The success of the first nanomaterials course encouraged Patel to expand his class into specialty fields, designing a two-day nanoenergetics class taught by himself and Victor Stepanov, a senior scientist at EWMTD.

Stepanov works with nano-organic energetics (RDX, HMX, CL-20) and inorganic materials (metals.) He is responsible for creating the first nanoorganic energetic known as nano-RDX. He is involved in research aimed at understanding the various properties of nanoenergetics including sensitivity, performance, and mechanical characteristics. He and Patel teach the nanoenergetics class that was first offered last fall and due to high demand is expected to be offered annually. The next one will be held in September.

“We always ask for everyone’s feedback. And, after our first class, everyone said ‘[Picatinny] is the home of the Army’s lethality–why did we not talk about nanoenergetics?’ So, in response to the student’s feedback, we implemented that nanoenergetics course,” said Patel. “Besides, in the long run, you’ll probably replace most energetics with nano-energetics, as they have far too many advantages.”

TECHNOLOGY EVOLUTION

Since all living things are a form of nanotechnology manipulated by the forces of nature, the history of nanotechnology dates back to the emergence of life. However, a more concrete example can be traced back to ancient times, when nanomaterials were manipulated to create gold and silver art such as Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman glass [I’ve added more about the Lycurgus Cup later in this post].

According to Stepanov, ARDEC’s interest in nanotechnology gained significant momentum approximately 20 years ago. The initiative at ARDEC was directly tied to the emergence of advanced technologies needed for production and characterization of nanomaterials, and was concurrent with adoption of nanotechnologies in other fields such as pharmaceuticals.

In 2010, an article in The Picatinny Voice titled “Tiny particles, big impact: Nanotechnology to help warfighters” discussed Picatinny’s ongoing research on nanopowders.

It noted that Picatinny’s Nanotechnology Lab is the largest facility in North America to produce nanopowders and nanomaterials, which are used to create nanoexplosives.

It also mentioned how using nanomaterials helped to develop lightweight composites as an alternative to traditional steel.

The more recent heightened study is due to the evolution of technology, which has allowed engineers and scientists to be more productive and made nanotechnology more ubiquitous throughout the military.

“Not too long ago making milligram quantities of nanoexplosives was challenging. Now, we have technologies that allow us make pounds of nanoexplosives per hour at low cost,” said Stepanov.

Pilot scale production of nanoexplosives is currently being performed at ARDEC, lead by Ashok Surapaneni of the Explosives Development Branch.

The broad interest in developing nanoenergetics such as nano-RDX and nano-HMX is their remarkably low initiation sensitivity.

These materials can thus be crucial in the development of safer next generation munitions that are much less vulnerable to accidental initiation.

SMALL CHANGES, BIG RESULTS

As a result, working with nanotechnology can have various payoffs, such as enhancing the performance of military products, said Patel. For instance, by manipulating nanomaterials, an engineer could make a weapon stronger, lighter, or increase its reactivity or durability.

“Generally, if you make something more safe, you make it less powerful,” said Stepanov. “But, with nanomaterials, you can make a product more safe and, in many cases, more powerful.”

There are two basic approaches to studying nanomaterials: bottom-up (building a large object atom by atom) and top-down (deconstructing a larger material.) Both approaches have been successfully employed in the development of nanoenergetics at ARDEC.

One of the challenges with manufacturing nonmaterials can be coping with shockwaves.

A shockwave initiates an explosive as it travels through a weapon’s main fill or the booster. When a shockwave travels through an energetic charge, it can hit small regions of defects, or voids, which heat up quickly and build pressure until the explosive reaches detonation. By using nanoenergetics, one could adjust the size and quantity of the defects and voids, so that the pressure isn’t as strong and ultimately prevent accidental detonation.

Nanomaterials also are difficult to process because they tend to agglomerate (stick together) and are also prone to Ostwald Ripening, or spontaneous growth of the crystals, which is especially pronounced at the nano-scale. This effect is commonly observed with ice cream, where ice can re-crystallize, resulting in a gritty texture.

“It’s a major production challenge because if you want to process nanomaterials–if you want to coat it with some polymer for explosives–any kind of medium that can dissolve these types of materials can promote ripening and you can end up with a product which no longer has the nanomaterial that you began with,” explained Stepanov.

However, nanotechnology research continues to grow at Picatinny as the research advances in the U.S. Army.

This ongoing development and future applicability encourages Patel and Stepanov to teach the nanomaterials and nanoenergetics course at Picatinny.

“I’m interested in making things better for the warfighter,” said Patel. “Nano-materials give you so many opportunities to do so. Also, as a scientist, it’s just a fascinating realm because you always get these little interesting surprises.

“You can know all the material science and equations, but then you get in the nano-world, and there’s something like a wrinkle–something you wouldn’t expect,” Patel added.

“It satisfies three deep needs: getting the warfighter technology, producing something of value, and it’s fun. You always see something new.”

Medieval church windows and the Lycurgus Cup

The shade of red in medieval church window glass is said to have been achieved by the use of gold nanoparticles. There is a source which claims the colour is due to copper rather than gold. I have not had to time to pursue the controversy such as it is but do have November 1, 2010 posting about stained glass and medieval churches which may prove of interest.

As for the Lycurgus Cup, it’s from the 4th century (CE or AD) and is an outstanding example of Roman art and craft. The glass in the cup is dichroic (it looks green or red depending on how the light catches it). The effect was achieved with the presence of gold and silver nanoparticles in the glass. I have a more extensive description and pictures in a Sept. 21, 2010 posting.

Final note

There is an  army initiative involving an educational institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The initiative is the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.