Category Archives: intellectual property

AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

It has also, Bogost notes in his article, occasioned an art show (Note: Links have been removed),

… part of “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” an exhibition of prints recently shown [Februay 13 – March 5, 2019] at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer.

The catalog calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.

The show in New York City, “Faceless Portraits …,” exhibited work by an artificially intelligent artist-agent (I’m creating a new term to suit my purposes) that’s different than the one used by Obvious to create “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” As noted earlier, it sold for a lot of money (Note: Links have been removed),

Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.

“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art [emphasis mine] by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

A bit of a segue here, there is a controversy as to whether or not that ‘urinal art’, also known as, The Fountain, should be attributed to Duchamp as noted in my January 23, 2019 posting titled ‘Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain’.

Getting back to the main action, Bogost goes on to describe the technologies underlying the two different AI artist-agents (Note: Links have been removed),

… Using a computer is hardly enough anymore; today’s machines offer all kinds of ways to generate images that can be output, framed, displayed, and sold—from digital photography to artificial intelligence. Recently, the fashionable choice has become generative adversarial networks, or GANs, the technology that created Portrait of Edmond de Belamy. Like other machine-learning methods, GANs use a sample set—in this case, art, or at least images of it—to deduce patterns, and then they use that knowledge to create new pieces. A typical Renaissance portrait, for example, might be composed as a bust or three-quarter view of a subject. The computer may have no idea what a bust is, but if it sees enough of them, it might learn the pattern and try to replicate it in an image.

GANs use two neural nets (a way of processing information modeled after the human brain) to produce images: a “generator” and a “discerner.” The generator produces new outputs—images, in the case of visual art—and the discerner tests them against the training set to make sure they comply with whatever patterns the computer has gleaned from that data. The quality or usefulness of the results depends largely on having a well-trained system, which is difficult.

That’s why folks in the know were upset by the Edmond de Belamy auction. The image was created by an algorithm the artists didn’t write, trained on an “Old Masters” image set they also didn’t create. The art world is no stranger to trend and bluster driving attention, but the brave new world of AI painting appeared to be just more found art, the machine-learning equivalent of a urinal on a plinth.

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

The results are striking and strange, although calling them a new artistic style might be a stretch. They’re more like credible takes on visual abstraction. The images in the show, which were produced based on training sets of Renaissance portraits and skulls, are more figurative, and fairly disturbing. Their gallery placards name them dukes, earls, queens, and the like, although they depict no actual people—instead, human-like figures, their features smeared and contorted yet still legible as portraiture. Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, for example, depicts a torso that might also read as the front legs and rear haunches of a hound. Atop it, a fleshy orb comes across as a head. The whole scene is rippled by the machine-learning algorithm, in the way of so many computer-generated artworks.

Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, one of the AI portraits produced by Ahmed Elgammal and AICAN. (Artrendex Inc.) [downloaded from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/ai-created-art-invades-chelsea-gallery-scene/584134/]

Bogost consults an expert on portraiture for a discussion about the particularities of portraiture and the shortcomings one might expect of an AI artist-agent (Note: A link has been removed),

“You can’t really pick a form of painting that’s more charged with cultural meaning than portraiture,” John Sharp, an art historian trained in 15th-century Italian painting and the director of the M.F.A. program in design and technology at Parsons School of Design, told me. The portrait isn’t just a style, it’s also a host for symbolism. “For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.” Take Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, an early-16th-century Boltraffio portrait that helped train the AICAN database for the show. The painting depicts a young man, believed to be the Bolognese poet Girolamo Casio, holding an arrow at an angle in his fingers and across his chest. It doubles as both weapon and quill, a potent symbol of poetry and aristocracy alike. Along with the arrow, the laurels in Casio’s hair are emblems of Apollo, the god of both poetry and archery.

A neural net couldn’t infer anything about the particular symbolic trappings of the Renaissance or antiquity—unless it was taught to, and that wouldn’t happen just by showing it lots of portraits. For Sharp and other critics of computer-generated art, the result betrays an unforgivable ignorance about the supposed influence of the source material.

But for the purposes of the show, the appeal to the Renaissance might be mostly a foil, a way to yoke a hip, new technology to traditional painting in order to imbue it with the gravity of history: not only a Chelsea gallery show, but also an homage to the portraiture found at the Met. To reinforce a connection to the cradle of European art, some of the images are presented in elaborate frames, a decision the gallerist, Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim; he says the relation is “distant”) [the Guggenheim is strongly associated with the visual arts by way the two Guggeheim museums, one in New York City and the other in Bilbao, Portugal], told me he insisted upon. Meanwhile, the technical method makes its way onto the gallery placards in an official-sounding way—“Creative Adversarial Network print.” But both sets of inspirations, machine-learning and Renaissance portraiture, get limited billing and zero explanation at the show. That was deliberate, Hoerle-Guggenheim said. He’s betting that the simple existence of a visually arresting AI painting will be enough to draw interest—and buyers. It would turn out to be a good bet.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

This is a fascinating article and I have one last excerpt, which poses this question, is an AI artist-agent a collaborator or a medium? There ‘s also speculation about how AI artist-agents might impact the business of art (Note: Links have been removed),

… it’s odd to list AICAN as a collaborator—painters credit pigment as a medium, not as a partner. Even the most committed digital artists don’t present the tools of their own inventions that way; when they do, it’s only after years, or even decades, of ongoing use and refinement.

But Elgammal insists that the move is justified because the machine produces unexpected results. “A camera is a tool—a mechanical device—but it’s not creative,” he said. “Using a tool is an unfair term for AICAN. It’s the first time in history that a tool has had some kind of creativity, that it can surprise you.” Casey Reas, a digital artist who co-designed the popular visual-arts-oriented coding platform Processing, which he uses to create some of his fine art, isn’t convinced. “The artist should claim responsibility over the work rather than to cede that agency to the tool or the system they create,” he told me.

Elgammal’s financial interest in AICAN might explain his insistence on foregrounding its role. Unlike a specialized print-making technique or even the Processing coding environment, AICAN isn’t just a device that Elgammal created. It’s also a commercial enterprise.

Elgammal has already spun off a company, Artrendex, that provides “artificial-intelligence innovations for the art market.” One of them offers provenance authentication for artworks; another can suggest works a viewer or collector might appreciate based on an existing collection; another, a system for cataloging images by visual properties and not just by metadata, has been licensed by the Barnes Foundation to drive its collection-browsing website.

The company’s plans are more ambitious than recommendations and fancy online catalogs. When presenting on a panel about the uses of blockchain for managing art sales and provenance, Elgammal caught the attention of Jessica Davidson, an art consultant who advises artists and galleries in building collections and exhibits. Davidson had been looking for business-development partnerships, and she became intrigued by AICAN as a marketable product. “I was interested in how we can harness it in a compelling way,” she says.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst[emphasis mine] for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

If you have the time, I recommend reading Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic in its entirety/ these excerpts don’t do it enough justice.

Portraiture: what does it mean these days?

After reading the article I have a few questions. What exactly do Bogost and the arty types in the article mean by the word ‘portrait’? “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is an image of someone who doesn’t and never has existed and the exhibit “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” features images that don’t bear much or, in some cases, any resemblance to human beings. Maybe this is considered a dull question by people in the know but I’m an outsider and I found the paradox: portraits of nonexistent people or nonpeople kind of interesting.

BTW, I double-checked my assumption about portraits and found this definition in the Portrait Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person [emphasis mine], in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

So, portraits that aren’t portraits give rise to some philosophical questions but Bogost either didn’t want to jump into that rabbit hole (segue into yet another topic) or, as I hinted earlier, may have assumed his audience had previous experience of those kinds of discussions.

Vancouver (Canada) and a ‘portraiture’ exhibit at the Rennie Museum

By one of life’s coincidences, Vancouver’s Rennie Museum had an exhibit (February 16 – June 15, 2019) that illuminates questions about art collecting and portraiture, From a February 7, 2019 Rennie Museum news release,

‘downloaded from https://renniemuseum.org/press-release-spring-2019-collected-works/] Courtesy: Rennie Museum

February 7, 2019

Press Release | Spring 2019: Collected Works
By rennie museum

rennie museum is pleased to present Spring 2019: Collected Works, a group exhibition encompassing the mediums of photography, painting and film. A portraiture of the collecting spirit [emphasis mine], the works exhibited invite exploration of what collected objects, and both the considered and unintentional ways they are displayed, inform us. Featuring the works of four artists—Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie—the exhibition runs from February 16 to June 15, 2019.

Four exquisite paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie detailing the home and private storage space of a major art collector provide a peek at how the passionately devoted integrates and accommodates the physical embodiments of such commitment into daily life. Grassie’s carefully constructed, hyper-realistic images also pose the question, “What happens to art once it’s sold?” In the transition from pristine gallery setting to idiosyncratic private space, how does the new context infuse our reading of the art and how does the art shift our perception of the individual?

Furthering the inquiry into the symbiotic exchange between possessor and possession, a selection of images by American photographer Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings question how the bilateral relationship permeates our interpretation when the collector and the collected are no longer immediately connected. What does de-acquisitioning an object inform us and how does provenance affect our consideration of the art?

The question of legacy became an unexpected facet of 700 Nimes Road (2010-2011), American photographer Catherine Opie’s portrait of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Opie did not directly photograph Taylor for any of the fifty images in the expansive portfolio. Instead, she focused on Taylor’s home and the objects within, inviting viewers to see—then see beyond—the façade of fame and consider how both treasures and trinkets act as vignettes to the stories of a life. Glamorous images of jewels and trophies juxtapose with mundane shots of a printer and the remote-control user manual. Groupings of major artworks on the wall are as illuminating of the home’s mistress as clusters of personal photos. Taylor passed away part way through Opie’s project. The subsequent photos include Taylor’s mementos heading off to auction, raising the question, “Once the collections that help to define someone are disbursed, will our image of that person lose focus?”

In a similar fashion, the twenty-two photographs in Villa Iolas (1982/2017), by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depict the Athens home of iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas. Taken in 1982 by Jones during his first travels abroad, the photographs of art, furniture and antiquities tell a story of privilege that contrast sharply with the images Jones captures on a return visit in 2016. Nearly three decades after Iolas’s 1989 death, his home sits in dilapidation, looted and vandalized. Iolas played an extraordinary role in the evolution of modern art, building the careers of Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico. He gave Andy Warhol his first solo exhibition and was a key advisor to famed collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Yet in the years since his death, his intention of turning his home into a modern art museum as a gift to Greece, along with his reputation, crumbled into ruins. The photographs taken by Jones during his visits in two different eras are incorporated into the film Fall into Ruin (2017), along with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

“I ask a lot of questions about how portraiture functionswhat is there to describe the person or time we live in or a certain set of politics…”
 – Catherine Opie, The Guardian, Feb 9, 2016

We tend to think of the act of collecting as a formal activity yet it can happen casually on a daily basis, often in trivial ways. While we readily acknowledge a collector consciously assembling with deliberate thought, we give lesser consideration to the arbitrary accumulations that each of us accrue. Be it master artworks, incidental baubles or random curios, the objects we acquire and surround ourselves with tell stories of who we are.

Andrew Grassie (Scotland, b. 1966) is a painter known for his small scale, hyper-realist works. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse; and rennie museum, Vancouver, Canada. He lives and works in London, England.

William E. Jones (USA, b. 1962) is an artist, experimental film-essayist and writer. Jones’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern, London; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Austrian Film Museum, Vienna; and, Oberhausen Short Film Festival. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

Louise Lawler (USA, b. 1947) is a photographer and one of the foremost members of the Pictures Generation. Lawler was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2017. She has held exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of Art, Oslo; and Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris. She lives and works in New York.

Catherine Opie (USA, b. 1961) is a photographer and educator. Her work has been exhibited at Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo; Los the Angeles County Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She is the recipient of United States Artist Fellowship, Julius Shulman’s Excellence in Photography Award, and the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art Medal.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

rennie museum opened in October 2009 in historic Wing Sang, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to feature dynamic exhibitions comprising only of art drawn from rennie collection. Showcasing works by emerging and established international artists, the exhibits, accompanied by supporting catalogues, are open free to the public through engaging guided tours. The museum’s commitment to providing access to arts and culture is also expressed through its education program, which offers free age-appropriate tours and customized workshops to children of all ages.

rennie collection is a globally recognized collection of contemporary art that focuses on works that tackle issues related to identity, social commentary and injustice, appropriation, and the nature of painting, photography, sculpture and film. Currently the collection includes works by over 370 emerging and established artists, with over fifty collected in depth. The Vancouver based collection engages actively with numerous museums globally through a robust, artist-centric, lending policy.

So despite the Wikipedia definition, it seems that portraits don’t always feature people. While Bogost didn’t jump into that particular rabbit hole, he did touch on the business side of art.

What about intellectual property?

Bogost doesn’t explicitly discuss this particular issue. It’s a big topic so I’m touching on it only lightly, if an artist worsk with an AI, the question as to ownership of the artwork could prove thorny. Is the copyright owner the computer scientist or the artist or both? Or does the AI artist-agent itself own the copyright? That last question may not be all that farfetched. Sophia, a social humanoid robot, has occasioned thought about ‘personhood.’ (Note: The robots mentioned in this posting have artificial intelligence.) From the Sophia (robot) Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Sophia has been interviewed in the same manner as a human, striking up conversations with hosts. Some replies have been nonsensical, while others have impressed interviewers such as 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.[12] In a piece for CNBC, when the interviewer expressed concerns about robot behavior, Sophia joked that he had “been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”.[27] Musk tweeted that Sophia should watch The Godfather and asked “what’s the worst that could happen?”[28][29] Business Insider’s chief UK editor Jim Edwards interviewed Sophia, and while the answers were “not altogether terrible”, he predicted it was a step towards “conversational artificial intelligence”.[30] At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a BBC News reporter described talking with Sophia as “a slightly awkward experience”.[31]

On October 11, 2017, Sophia was introduced to the United Nations with a brief conversation with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.[32] On October 25, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, the robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship [emphasis mine], becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.[29][33] This attracted controversy as some commentators wondered if this implied that Sophia could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. Social media users used Sophia’s citizenship to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In December 2017, Sophia’s creator David Hanson said in an interview that Sophia would use her citizenship to advocate for women’s rights in her new country of citizenship; Newsweek criticized that “What [Hanson] means, exactly, is unclear”.[34] On November 27, 2018 Sophia was given a visa by Azerbaijan while attending Global Influencer Day Congress held in Baku. December 15, 2018 Sophia was appointed a Belt and Road Innovative Technology Ambassador by China'[35]

As for an AI artist-agent’s intellectual property rights , I have a July 10, 2017 posting featuring that question in more detail. Whether you read that piece or not, it seems obvious that artists might hesitate to call an AI agent, a partner rather than a medium of expression. After all, a partner (and/or the computer scientist who developed the programme) might expect to share in property rights and profits but paint, marble, plastic, and other media used by artists don’t have those expectations.

Moving slightly off topic , in my July 10, 2017 posting I mentioned a competition (literary and performing arts rather than visual arts) called, ‘Dartmouth College and its Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts’. It was started in 2016 and, as of 2018, was still operational under this name: Creative Turing Tests. Assuming there’ll be contests for prizes in 2019, there’s (from the contest site) [1] PoetiX, competition in computer-generated sonnet writing; [2] Musical Style, composition algorithms in various styles, and human-machine improvisation …; and [3] DigiLit, algorithms able to produce “human-level” short story writing that is indistinguishable from an “average” human effort. You can find the contest site here.

Cooking up a lung one way or the other

I have two stories about lungs and they are entirely different with the older one being a bioengineering story from the US and the more recent one being an artificial tissue story from the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa (both in Canada).

Lab grown lungs

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks and Quarks radio programme posted a December 29, 2018 news item (with embedded radio files) about bioengineered lunjgs,

There are two major components to building an organ: the structure and the right cells on that structure. A team led by Dr. Joan Nichols, a Professor of Internal Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, were able to tackle both parts of the problem

In their experiment they used a donor organ for the structure. They took a lung from an unrelated pig, and stripped it of its cells, leaving a scaffold of collagen, a tough, flexible protein.  This provided a pre-made appropriate structure, though in future they think it may be possible to use 3-D printing technology to get the same result.

They then added cultured cells from the animal who would be receiving the transplant – so the lung was made of the animal’s own cells. Cultured lung and blood vessel cells were placed on the scaffold and it was  placed in a tank for 30 days with a cocktail of nutrients to help the cells stick to the scaffold and proliferate. The result was a kind of baby lung.

They then transplanted the bio-engineered, though immature, lung into the recipient animal where they hoped it would continue to develop and mature – growing to become a healthy, functioning organ.

The recipients of the bio-engineered lungs were four pigs adult pigs, which appeared to tolerate the transplants well. In order to study the development of the bio-engineered lungs, they euthanized the animals at different times: 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation.

They found that as early as two weeks, the bio-engineered lung had integrated into the recipient animals’ body, building a strong network of blood vessels essential for the lung to survive. There was no evidence of pulmonary edema, the build of fluid in the lungs, which is usually a sign of the blood vessels not working efficiently.  There was no sign of rejection of the transplanted organs, and the pigs were healthy up to the point where they were euthanized.

One lingering concern is how well the bio-engineered lungs delivered oxygen. The four pigs who received the trasplant [sic] had one original functioning lung, so they didn’t depend on their new bio-engineered lung for breathing. The scientists were not sure that the bio-engineered lung was mature enough to handle the full load of oxygen on its own.

You can hear Bob McDonald’s (host of Quirks & Quarks, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation science radio programme) interview lead scientist, Dr. Joan Nichols if you go to here. (Note: I find he overmodulates his voice but some may find he has a ‘friendly’ voice.)

This is an image of the lung scaffold produced by the team,

Lung scaffold in the bioreactor chamber on Day 1 of the experiment, before the cells from the study pig were added. (Credit: Joan Nichols) [downloaded from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/dec-29-2018-water-on-mars-lab-grown-lungs-and-more-the-biggest-science-stories-of-2018-1.4940811/lab-grown-lungs-are-transplanted-in-pigs-today-they-may-help-humans-tomorrow-1.4940822]

Here’s more technical detail in an August 1, 2018i University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originally announced the research,

A research team at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have bioengineered lungs and transplanted them into adult pigs with no medical complication.

In 2014, Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston were the first research team to successfully bioengineer human lungs in a lab. In a paper now available in Science Translational Medicine, they provide details of how their work has progressed from 2014 to the point no complications have occurred in the pigs as part of standard preclinical testing.

“The number of people who have developed severe lung injuries has increased worldwide, while the number of available transplantable organs have decreased,” said Cortiella, professor of pediatric anesthesia. “Our ultimate goal is to eventually provide new options for the many people awaiting a transplant,” said Nichols, professor of internal medicine and associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB.

To produce a bioengineered lung, a support scaffold is needed that meets the structural needs of a lung. A support scaffold was created using a lung from an unrelated animal that was treated using a special mixture of sugar and detergent to eliminate all cells and blood in the lung, leaving only the scaffolding proteins or skeleton of the lung behind. This is a lung-shaped scaffold made totally from lung proteins.

The cells used to produce each bioengineered lung came from a single lung removed from each of the study animals. This was the source of the cells used to produce a tissue-matched bioengineered lung for each animal in the study. The lung scaffold was placed into a tank filled with a carefully blended cocktail of nutrients and the animals’ own cells were added to the scaffold following a carefully designed protocol or recipe. The bioengineered lungs were grown in a bioreactor for 30 days prior to transplantation. Animal recipients were survived for 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation, allowing the research team to examine development of the lung tissue following transplantation and how the bioengineered lung would integrate with the body.

All of the pigs that received a bioengineered lung stayed healthy. As early as two weeks post-transplant, the bioengineered lung had established the strong network of blood vessels needed for the lung to survive.

“We saw no signs of pulmonary edema, which is usually a sign of the vasculature not being mature enough,” said Nichols and Cortiella. “The bioengineered lungs continued to develop post-transplant without any infusions of growth factors, the body provided all of the building blocks that the new lungs needed.”

Nichols said that the focus of the study was to learn how well the bioengineered lung adapted and continued to mature within a large, living body. They didn’t evaluate how much the bioengineered lung provided oxygenation to the animal.

“We do know that the animals had 100 percent oxygen saturation, as they had one normal functioning lung,” said Cortiella. “Even after two months, the bioengineered lung was not yet mature enough for us to stop the animal from breathing on the normal lung and switch to just the bioengineered lung.”

For this reason, future studies will look at long-term survival and maturation of the tissues as well as gas exchange capability.

The researchers said that with enough funding, they could grow lungs to transplant into people in compassionate use circumstances within five to 10 years.

“It has taken a lot of heart and 15 years of research to get us this far, our team has done something incredible with a ridiculously small budget and an amazingly dedicated group of people,” Nichols and Cortiella said.

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

Production and transplantation of bioengineered lung into a large-animal model by Joan E. Nichols, Saverio La Francesca, Jean A. Niles, Stephanie P. Vega, Lissenya B. Argueta, Luba Frank, David C. Christiani, Richard B. Pyles, Blanca E. Himes, Ruyang Zhang, Su Li, Jason Sakamoto, Jessica Rhudy, Greg Hendricks, Filippo Begarani, Xuewu Liu, Igor Patrikeev, Rahul Pal, Emiliya Usheva, Grace Vargas, Aaron Miller, Lee Woodson, Adam Wacher, Maria Grimaldo, Daniil Weaver, Ron Mlcak, and Joaquin Cortiella. Science Translational Medicine 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 10, Issue 452, eaao3926 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aao3926

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial lung cancer tissue

The research teams at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa worked on creating artificial lung tissue but other applications are possible too. First, there’s the announcement in a February 25, 2019 news item on phys.org,

A 3-D hydrogel created by researchers in U of T Engineering Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab is helping University of Ottawa researchers to quickly screen hundreds of potential drugs for their ability to fight highly invasive cancers.

Cell invasion is a critical hallmark of metastatic cancers, such as certain types of lung and brain cancer. Fighting these cancers requires therapies that can both kill cancer cells as well as prevent cell invasion of healthy tissue. Today, most cancer drugs are only screened for their ability to kill cancer cells.

“In highly invasive diseases, there is a crucial need to screen for both of these functions,” says Shoichet. “We now have a way to do this.”

A February 25, 2019 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail ,

In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. This emulated environment enabled their collaborators in Professor Bill Stanford’s lab at University of Ottawa to screen for both cancer-cell growth and invasion. The study, led by Roger Y. Tam, a research associate in Shochet’s lab, was recently published in Advanced Materials.

“We can conduct this in a 384-well plate, which is no bigger than your hand. And with image-analysis software, we can automate this method to enable quick, targeted screenings for hundreds of potential cancer treatments,” says Shoichet.

One example is the researchers’ drug screening for lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare lung disease affecting women. Shoichet and her team were inspired by the work of Green Eggs and LAM, a Toronto-based organization raising awareness of the disease.

Using their hydrogels, they were able to automate and screen more than 800 drugs, thereby uncovering treatments that could target disease growth and invasion.

In the ongoing collaboration, the researchers plan to next screen multiple drugs at different doses to gain greater insight into new treatment methods for LAM. The strategies and insights they gain could also help identify new drugs for other invasive cancers.

Shoichet, who was recently named a Distinguished Woman in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, also plans to patent the hydrogel technology.

“This has, and continues to be, a great collaboration that is advancing knowledge at the intersection of engineering and biology,” says Shoichet.

I note that Shoichet (pronounced ShoyKet) is getting ready to patent this work. I do have a question about this and it’s not up to Shoichet to answer as she didn’t create the system. Will the taxpayers who funded her work receive any financial benefits should the hydrogel prove to be successful or will we be paying double, both supporting her research and paying for the hydrogel through our healthcare costs?

Getting back to the research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rationally Designed 3D Hydrogels Model Invasive Lung Diseases Enabling High‐Content Drug Screening by Roger Y. Tam, Julien Yockell‐Lelièvre, Laura J. Smith, Lisa M. Julian, Alexander E. G. Baker, Chandarong Choey, Mohamed S. Hasim, Jim Dimitroulakos, William L. Stanford, Molly S. Shoichet. Advanced Materials Volume 31, Issue 7 February 15, 2019 1806214 First published online: 27 December 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201806214

This paper is behind a paywall.

A little digital piracy can boost bottom line for manufacturers and retailers

I’ve seen the argument before but this is the first time I’ve seen an academic supporting the thesis that digital piracy can be a boon for business. From a January 28, 2019 news item on phys.org,

HBO’s popular television series “Game of Thrones” returns in April, but millions of fans continue to illegally download the program, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most pirated program.

Many may wonder why the TV network hasn’t taken a more aggressive approach to combating illegal streaming services and downloaders. Perhaps it is because the benefits to the company outweigh the consequences. Research analysis by faculty in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and two other schools found that a moderate level of piracy can have a positive impact on the bottom line for both the manufacturer and the retailer—and not at the expense of consumers.

A January 28, 2019 Indiana University at Bloomington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“When information goods are sold to consumers via a retailer, in certain situations, a moderate level of piracy seems to have a surprisingly positive impact on the profits of the manufacturer and the retailer while, at the same time, enhancing consumer welfare,” wrote Antino Kim, assistant professor of operations and decision technologies at Kelley, and his co-authors.

“Such a win-win-win situation is not only good for the supply chain but is also beneficial for the overall economy.”

While not condoning piracy, Kim and his colleagues were surprised to find that it can actually reduce, or completely eliminate at times, the adverse effect of double marginalization, an economic concept where both manufacturers and retailers in the same supply chain add to the price of a product, passing these markups along to consumers.

The professors found that, because piracy can affect the pricing power of both the manufacturer and the retailer, it injects “shadow” competition into an otherwise monopolistic market.

“From the manufacturer’s point of view, the retailer getting squeezed is a good thing,” Kim said. “It can’t mark up the product as before, and the issue of double marginalization diminishes. Vice versa, if the manufacturer gets squeezed, the retailer is better off

“What we found is, by both of them being squeezed together — both at the upstream and the downstream levels — they are able to get closer to the optimal retail price that a single, vertically integrated entity would charge.”

In the example of “Game of Thrones,” HBO is the upstream “manufacturer” in the supply chain, and cable and satellite TV operators are the downstream “retailers.”

Kim and his co-authors — Atanu Lahiri, associate professor of information systems at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Debabrata Dey, professor of information systems at the University of Washington — presented their findings in the article, “The ‘Invisible Hand’ of Piracy: An Economic Analysis of the Information-Goods Supply Chain,” published in the latest issue of MIS Quarterly.

They suggest that businesses, government and consumers rethink the value of anti-piracy enforcement, which can be quite costly, and consider taking a moderate approach. Australia, for instance, due to prohibitive costs, scrapped its three-strikes scheme to track down illegal downloaders and send them warning notices. Though the Australian Parliament passed a new anti-piracy law last year, its effectiveness remains unclear until after it is reviewed in two years.

As with other studies, Kim and his colleagues found that when enforcement is low and piracy is rampant, both manufacturers and retailers suffer. But they caution against becoming overzealous in prosecuting illegal downloaders or in lobbying for more enforcement.

“Our results do not imply that the legal channel should, all of a sudden, start actively encouraging piracy,” they said. “The implication is simply that, situated in a real-world context, our manufacturer and retailer should recognize that a certain level of piracy or its threat might actually be beneficial and should, therefore, exercise some moderation in their anti-piracy efforts.

“This could manifest itself in them tolerating piracy to a certain level, perhaps by turning a blind eye to it,” they add. “Such a strategy would indeed be consistent with how others have described HBO’s attitude toward piracy of its products.”

This research was first made available online in August 2018, ahead of final publication in print in December 2018.

Fascinating analysis, eh?

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

The “Invisible Hand” of Piracy: An Economic Analysis of the Information-Goods Supply Chain by Antino Kim, Atanu Lahiri, and Debabrata Dey. MIS Quarterly 2018 Volume 42 Issue 4: 1117-1141; DOI: 10.25300/MISQ/2018/14798

Intriguingly, for a paper about piracy someone has decided it should reside behind a paywall. However, there is an appendix which seems to be freely available here.

Growing perfect human blood vessels in a Petri dish

I had not realized that blood vessels are considered organs (Live and learn.) The big news about blood vessel organoids was announced in a January 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists have managed to grow perfect human blood vessels as organoids in a petri dish for the first time

The breakthrough engineering technology, outlined in a new study published today [January 16, 2019] in Nature, dramatically advances research of vascular diseases like diabetes, identifying a key pathway to potentially prevent changes to blood vessels — a major cause of death and morbidity among those with diabetes.

A January 16, 2019 University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains organoids and describes the work in more detail,

An organoid is a three-dimensional structure grown from stem cells that mimics an organ and can be used to study aspects of that organ in a petri dish.

“Being able to build human blood vessels as organoids from stem cells is a game changer,” said the study’s senior author Josef Penninger, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics, director of the Life Sciences Institute at UBC and founding director of the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA).

“Every single organ in our body is linked with the circulatory system. This could potentially allow researchers to unravel the causes and treatments for a variety of vascular diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, wound healing problems, stroke, cancer and, of course, diabetes.”

Diabetes affects an estimated 420 million people worldwide. Many diabetic symptoms are the result of changes in blood vessels that result in impaired blood circulation and oxygen supply of tissues. Despite its prevalence, very little is known about the vascular changes arising from diabetes. This limitation has slowed the development of much-needed treatment.

To tackle this problem, Penninger and his colleagues developed a groundbreaking model: three-dimensional human blood vessel organoids grown in a petri dish. These so-called “vascular organoids” can be cultivated using stem cells in the lab, strikingly mimicking the structure and function of real human blood vessels.

When researchers transplanted the blood vessel organoids into mice, they found that they developed into perfectly functional human blood vessels including arteries and capillaries. The discovery illustrates that it is possible to not only engineer blood vessel organoids from human stem cells in a dish, but also to grow a functional human vascular system in another species.

“What is so exciting about our work is that we were successful in making real human blood vessels out of stem cells,” said Reiner Wimmer, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral research fellow at IMBA. “Our organoids resemble human capillaries to a great extent, even on a molecular level, and we can now use them to study blood vessel diseases directly on human tissue.”

One feature of diabetes is that blood vessels show an abnormal thickening of the basement membrane. As a result, the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to cells and tissues is strongly impaired, causing a multitude of health problems, such as kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, blindness and peripheral artery disease, leading to amputations.

The researchers then exposed the blood vessel organoids to a “diabetic” environment in a petri dish.

“Surprisingly, we could observe a massive expansion of the basement membrane in the vascular organoids,” said Wimmer. “This typical thickening of the basement membrane is strikingly similar to the vascular damage seen in diabetic patients.”

The researchers then searched for chemical compounds that could block thickening of the blood vessel walls. They found none of the current anti-diabetic medications had any positive effects on these blood vessel defects. However, they discovered that an inhibitor of γ-secretase, a type of enzyme in the body, prevented the thickening of the blood vessel walls, suggesting, at least in animal models, that blocking γ-secretase could be helpful in treating diabetes.

The researchers say the findings could allow them to identify underlying causes of vascular disease, and to potentially develop and test new treatments for patients with diabetes.

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

Human blood vessel organoids as a model of diabetic vasculopathy by Reiner A. Wimmer, Alexandra Leopoldi, Martin Aichinger, Nikolaus Wick, Brigitte Hantusch, Maria Novatchkova, Jasmin Taubenschmid, Monika Hämmerle, Christopher Esk, Joshua A. Bagley, Dominik Lindenhofer, Guibin Chen, Manfred Boehm, Chukwuma A. Agu, Fengtang Yang, Beiyuan Fu, Johannes Zuber, Juergen A. Knoblich, Dontscho Kerjaschki & Josef M. Penninger. Nature volume 565, pages505–510 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0858-8 Issue Date: 24 January 2019

This paper is behind a paywall. One other thing, a patent application has been filed according to the Author information section (subsection: Competing interests) of the abstract.

Nanoflowers for better drug delivery; researchers looking for commercial partners

Caption: Schematic representation of the movement of the flower-like particle as it makes its way through a cellular trap to deliver therapeutic genes. Credit: WSU [Washington State University]

It looks more like a swimming pool with pool toys to me but I imagine that nobody wants to say that they’re sending ‘pool toys’ through your bloodstream. Nanoflowers or flower-shaped nanoparticles sounds nicer.

From a January 10, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

Washington State University [WSU] researchers have developed a novel way to deliver drugs and therapies into cells at the nanoscale without causing toxic effects that have stymied other such efforts.

The work could someday lead to more effective therapies and diagnostics for cancer and other illnesses.

Led by Yuehe Lin, professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and Chunlong Chen, senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), the research team developed biologically inspired materials at the nanoscale that were able to effectively deliver model therapeutic genes into tumor cells. …

A January 10, 2019 WSU news release (also on EurekAlert) by Tina Hilding, which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

Researchers have been working to develop nanomaterials that can effectively carry therapeutic genes directly into the cells for the treatment of diseases such as cancer. The key issues for gene delivery using nanomaterials are their low delivery efficiency of medicine and potential toxicity.

“To develop nanotechnology for medical purposes, the first thing to consider is toxicity — That is the first concern for doctors,” said Lin.

The flower-like particle the WSU and PNNL team developed is about 150 nanometers in size, or about one thousand times smaller than the width of a piece of paper. It is made of sheets of peptoids, which are similar to natural peptides that make up proteins. The peptoids make for a good drug delivery particle because they’re fairly easy to synthesize and, because they’re similar to natural biological materials, work well in biological systems.

The researchers added fluorescent probes in their peptoid nanoflowers, so they could trace them as they made their way through cells, and they added the element fluorine, which helped the nanoflowers more easily escape from tricky cellular traps that often impede drug delivery.

The flower-like particles loaded with therapeutic genes were able to make their way smoothly out of the predicted cellular trap, enter the heart of the cell, and release their drug there.

“The nanoflowers successfully and rapidly escaped (the cell trap) and exhibited minimal cytotoxicity,” said Lin.

After their initial testing with model drug molecules, the researchers hope to conduct further studies using real medicines.

“This paves a new way for us to develop nanocargoes that can efficiently deliver drug molecules into the cell and offers new opportunities for targeted gene therapies,” he said.

The WSU and PNNL team have filed a patent application for the new technology, and they are seeking industrial partners for further development.

Should you and your company be interested in partnering with the researchers, contact:

  • Yuehe Lin, professor, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, 509‑335‑8523, yuehe.lin@wsu.edu
  • Tina Hilding, communications director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, 509‑335‑5095, thilding@wsu.edu

For those who’d like more information, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Efficient Cytosolic Delivery Using Crystalline Nanoflowers Assembled from Fluorinated Peptoids by Yang Song, Mingming Wang, Suiqiong Li, Haibao Jin, Xiaoli Cai, Dan Du, He Li, Chun‐Long Chen, Yuehe Lin. Small DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201803544 First published: 22 November 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Two-dimensional material stacks into multiple layers to build a memory cell for longer lasting batteries

This research comes from Purdue University (US) and the December announcement seemed particularly timely since battery-powered gifts are popular at Christmas but since it could be many years before this work is commercialized, you may want to tuck it away for future reference.  Also, readers familiar with memristors might see a resemblance to the memory cells mentioned in the following excerpt. From a December 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

The more objects we make “smart,” from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.

Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved functionality in a material called molybdenum ditelluride.

The two-dimensional material stacks into multiple layers to build a memory cell. Researchers at Purdue University engineered this device in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Theiss Research Inc.

A December 13, 2018 Purdue University news release by Kayla Wiles, which originated the news item,  describes the work in more detail,

Chip-maker companies have long called for better memory technologies to enable a growing network of smart devices. One of these next-generation possibilities is resistive random access memory, or RRAM for short.

In RRAM, an electrical current is typically driven through a memory cell made up of stacked materials, creating a change in resistance that records data as 0s and 1s in memory. The sequence of 0s and 1s among memory cells identifies pieces of information that a computer reads to perform a function and then store into memory again.

A material would need to be robust enough for storing and retrieving data at least trillions of times, but materials currently used have been too unreliable. So RRAM hasn’t been available yet for widescale use on computer chips.

Molybdenum ditelluride could potentially last through all those cycles.
“We haven’t yet explored system fatigue using this new material, but our hope is that it is both faster and more reliable than other approaches due to the unique switching mechanism we’ve observed,” Joerg Appenzeller, Purdue University’s Barry M. and Patricia L. Epstein Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the scientific director of nanoelectronics at the Birck Nanotechnology Center.

Molybdenum ditelluride allows a system to switch more quickly between 0 and 1, potentially increasing the rate of storing and retrieving information. This is because when an electric field is applied to the cell, atoms are displaced by a tiny distance, resulting in a state of high resistance, noted as 0, or a state of low resistance, noted as 1, which can occur much faster than switching in conventional RRAM devices.

“Because less power is needed for these resistive states to change, a battery could last longer,” Appenzeller said.

In a computer chip, each memory cell would be located at the intersection of wires, forming a memory array called cross-point RRAM.

Appenzeller’s lab wants to explore building a stacked memory cell that also incorporates the other main components of a computer chip: “logic,” which processes data, and “interconnects,” wires that transfer electrical signals, by utilizing a library of novel electronic materials fabricated at NIST.

“Logic and interconnects drain battery too, so the advantage of an entirely two-dimensional architecture is more functionality within a small space and better communication between memory and logic,” Appenzeller said.

Two U.S. patent applications have been filed for this technology through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization.

The work received financial support from the Semiconductor Research Corporation through the NEW LIMITS Center (led by Purdue University), NIST, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Material Genome Initiative.

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

Electric-field induced structural transition in vertical MoTe2- and Mo1–xWxTe2-based resistive memories by Feng Zhang, Huairuo Zhang, Sergiy Krylyuk, Cory A. Milligan, Yuqi Zhu, Dmitry Y. Zemlyanov, Leonid A. Bendersky, Benjamin P. Burton, Albert V. Davydov, & Joerg Appenzeller. Nature Materials volume 18, pages 55–61 (2019) Published: 10 December 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-018-0234-y

This paper is behind a paywall.

I found it at the movies: a commentary on/review of “Films from the Future”

Kudos to anyone who recognized the reference to Pauline Kael (she changed film criticism forever) and her book “I Lost it at the Movies.” Of course, her book title was a bit of sexual innuendo, quite risqué for an important film critic in 1965 but appropriate for a period (the 1960s) associated with a sexual revolution. (There’s more about the 1960’s sexual revolution in the US along with mention of a prior sexual revolution in the 1920s in this Wikipedia entry.)

The title for this commentary is based on an anecdote from Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of the Arizona State University [ASU] Risk Innovation Lab) popular science and technology book, “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”

The ‘title-inspiring’ anecdote concerns Maynard’s first viewing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey, when as a rather “bratty” 16-year-old who preferred to read science fiction, he discovered new ways of seeing and imaging the world. Maynard isn’t explicit about when he became a ‘techno nerd’ or how movies gave him an experience books couldn’t but presumably at 16 he was already gearing up for a career in the sciences. That ‘movie’ revelation received in front of a black and white television on January 1,1982 eventually led him to write, “Films from the Future.” (He has a PhD in physics which he is now applying to the field of risk innovation. For a more detailed description of Dr. Maynard and his work, there’s his ASU profile webpage and, of course, the introduction to his book.)

The book is quite timely. I don’t know how many people have noticed but science and scientific innovation is being covered more frequently in the media than it has been in many years. Science fairs and festivals are being founded on what seems to be a daily basis and you can now find science in art galleries. (Not to mention the movies and television where science topics are covered in comic book adaptations, in comedy, and in standard science fiction style.) Much of this activity is centered on what’s called ’emerging technologies’. These technologies are why people argue for what’s known as ‘blue sky’ or ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ science for without that science there would be no emerging technology.

Films from the Future

Isn’t reading the Table of Contents (ToC) the best way to approach a book? (From Films from the Future; Note: The formatting has been altered),

Table of Contents
Chapter One
In the Beginning 14
Beginnings 14
Welcome to the Future 16
The Power of Convergence 18
Socially Responsible Innovation 21
A Common Point of Focus 25
Spoiler Alert 26
Chapter Two
Jurassic Park: The Rise of Resurrection Biology 27
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World 27
De-Extinction 31
Could We, Should We? 36
The Butterfly Effect 39
Visions of Power 43
Chapter Three
Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning 46
Sins of Futures Past 46
Cloning 51
Genuinely Human? 56
Too Valuable to Fail? 62
Chapter Four
Minority Report: Predicting Criminal Intent 64
Criminal Intent 64
The “Science” of Predicting Bad Behavior 69
Criminal Brain Scans 74
Machine Learning-Based Precognition 77
Big Brother, Meet Big Data 79
Chapter Five
Limitless: Pharmaceutically-enhanced Intelligence 86
A Pill for Everything 86
The Seduction of Self-Enhancement 89
Nootropics 91
If You Could, Would You? 97
Privileged Technology 101
Our Obsession with Intelligence 105
Chapter Six
Elysium: Social Inequity in an Age of Technological
Extremes 110
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth 110
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies 115
The Disposable Workforce 119
Living in an Automated Future 124
Chapter Seven
Ghost in the Shell: Being Human in an
Augmented Future 129
Through a Glass Darkly 129
Body Hacking 135
More than “Human”? 137
Plugged In, Hacked Out 142
Your Corporate Body 147
Chapter Eight
Ex Machina: AI and the Art of Manipulation 154
Plato’s Cave 154
The Lure of Permissionless Innovation 160
Technologies of Hubris 164
Superintelligence 169
Defining Artificial Intelligence 172
Artificial Manipulation 175
Chapter Nine
Transcendence: Welcome to the Singularity 180
Visions of the Future 180
Technological Convergence 184
Enter the Neo-Luddites 190
Techno-Terrorism 194
Exponential Extrapolation 200
Make-Believe in the Age of the Singularity 203
Chapter Ten
The Man in the White Suit: Living in a Material World 208
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 208
Mastering the Material World 213
Myopically Benevolent Science 220
Never Underestimate the Status Quo 224
It’s Good to Talk 227
Chapter Eleven
Inferno: Immoral Logic in an Age of
Genetic Manipulation 231
Decoding Make-Believe 231
Weaponizing the Genome 234
Immoral Logic? 238
The Honest Broker 242
Dictating the Future 248
Chapter Twelve
The Day After Tomorrow: Riding the Wave of
Climate Change 251
Our Changing Climate 251
Fragile States 255
A Planetary “Microbiome” 258
The Rise of the Anthropocene 260
Building Resiliency 262
Geoengineering the Future 266
Chapter Thirteen
Contact: Living by More than Science Alone 272
An Awful Waste of Space 272
More than Science Alone 277
Occam’s Razor 280
What If We’re Not Alone? 283
Chapter Fourteen
Looking to the Future 288
Acknowledgments 293

The ToC gives the reader a pretty clue as to where the author is going with their book and Maynard explains how he chose his movies in his introductory chapter (from Films from the Future),

“There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, and materials-based technologies, and they illuminate a broader landscape around our evolving relationship with science and technology. And, to be honest, they are all movies that I get a kick out of watching.” (p. 17)

Jurassic Park (Chapter Two)

Dinosaurs do not interest me—they never have. Despite my profound indifference I did see the movie, Jurassic Park, when it was first released (someone talked me into going). And, I am still profoundly indifferent. Thankfully, Dr. Maynard finds meaning and a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong. (p. 28)

What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused. These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technologyenabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.  (pp. 30-1)

He also describes a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

De-Extinction

In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans
coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.

The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the
father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through
the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for deextinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.9

Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.

The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue
that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.

Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on
the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.

An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.

Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.

The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct
individual members of it.

The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you
need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning,
scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come
back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of
achieving this.

What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.

One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others
have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.

Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.

The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.

It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. … (pp. 31-4)

This selection illustrates what Maynard does so very well throughout the book where he uses each film as a launching pad for a clear, readable description of relevant bits of science so you understand why the premise was likely, unlikely, or pure fantasy while linking it to contemporary practices, efforts, and issues. In the context of Jurassic Park, Maynard goes on to raise some fascinating questions such as: Should we revive animals rendered extinct (due to obsolescence or inability to adapt to new conditions) when we could develop new animals?

General thoughts

‘Films for the Future’ offers readable (to non-scientific types) science, lively writing, and the occasional ‘memorish’ anecdote. As well, Dr. Maynard raises the curtain on aspects of the scientific enterprise that most of us do not get to see.  For example, the meeting  between Sergey Zimov and George Church and how it led to new ‘de-extinction’ work’. He also describes the problems that the scientists encountered and are encountering. This is in direct contrast to how scientific work is usually presented in the news media as one glorious breakthrough after the next.

Maynard does discuss the issues of social inequality and power and ownership. For example, who owns your transplant or data? Puzzlingly, he doesn’t touch on the current environment where scientists in the US and elsewhere are encouraged/pressured to start up companies commercializing their work.

Nor is there any mention of how universities are participating in this grand business experiment often called ‘innovation’. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes an outcome for the CRISPR [gene editing system] patent fight taking place between Harvard University’s & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley and my Sept. 11, 2018 posting about an art/science exhibit in Vancouver [Canada] provides an update for round 2 of the Broad Institute vs. UC Berkeley patent fight [scroll down about 65% of the way.) *To read about how my ‘cultural blindness’ shows up here scroll down to the single asterisk at the end.*

There’s a foray through machine-learning and big data as applied to predictive policing in Maynard’s ‘Minority Report’ chapter (my November 23, 2017 posting describes Vancouver’s predictive policing initiative [no psychics involved], the first such in Canada). There’s no mention of surveillance technology, which if I recall properly was part of the future environment, both by the state and by corporations. (Mia Armstrong’s November 15, 2018 article for Slate on Chinese surveillance being exported to Venezuela provides interesting insight.)

The gaps are interesting and various. This of course points to a problem all science writers have when attempting an overview of science. (Carl Zimmer’s latest, ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’] a doorstopping 574 pages, also has some gaps despite his focus on heredity,)

Maynard has worked hard to give an comprehensive overview in a remarkably compact 279 pages while developing his theme about science and the human element. In other words, science is not monolithic; it’s created by human beings and subject to all the flaws and benefits that humanity’s efforts are always subject to—scientists are people too.

The readership for ‘Films from the Future’ spans from the mildly interested science reader to someone like me who’s been writing/blogging about these topics (more or less) for about 10 years. I learned a lot reading this book.

Next time, I’m hopeful there’ll be a next time, Maynard might want to describe the parameters he’s set for his book in more detail that is possible in his chapter headings. He could have mentioned that he’s not a cinéaste so his descriptions of the movies are very much focused on the story as conveyed through words. He doesn’t mention colour palates, camera angles, or, even, cultural lenses.

Take for example, his chapter on ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Focused on the Japanese animation film and not the live action Hollywood version he talks about human enhancement and cyborgs. The Japanese have a different take on robots, inanimate objects, and, I assume, cyborgs than is found in Canada or the US or Great Britain, for that matter (according to a colleague of mine, an Englishwoman who lived in Japan for ten or more years). There’s also the chapter on the Ealing comedy, The Man in The White Suit, an English film from the 1950’s. That too has a cultural (as well as, historical) flavour but since Maynard is from England, he may take that cultural flavour for granted. ‘Never let me go’ in Chapter Two was also a UK production, albeit far more recent than the Ealing comedy and it’s interesting to consider how a UK production about cloning might differ from a US or Chinese or … production on the topic. I am hearkening back to Maynard’s anecdote about movies giving him new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

There’s a corrective. A couple of sentences in Maynard’s introductory chapter cautioning that in depth exploration of ‘cultural lenses’ was not possible without expanding the book to an unreadable size followed by a sentence in each of the two chapters that there are cultural differences.

One area where I had a significant problem was with regard to being “programmed” and having  “instinctual” behaviour,

As a species, we are embarrassingly programmed to see “different” as “threatening,” and to take instinctive action against it. It’s a trait that’s exploited in many science fiction novels and movies, including those in this book. If we want to see the rise of increasingly augmented individuals, we need to be prepared for some social strife. (p. 136)

These concepts are much debated in the social sciences and there are arguments for and against ‘instincts regarding strangers and their possible differences’. I gather Dr. Maynard hies to the ‘instinct to defend/attack’ school of thought.

One final quandary, there was no sex and I was expecting it in the Ex Machina chapter, especially now that sexbots are about to take over the world (I exaggerate). Certainly, if you’re talking about “social strife,” then sexbots would seem to be fruitful line of inquiry, especially when there’s talk of how they could benefit families (my August 29, 2018 posting). Again, there could have been a sentence explaining why Maynard focused almost exclusively in this chapter on the discussions about artificial intelligence and superintelligence.

Taken in the context of the book, these are trifling issues and shouldn’t stop you from reading Films from the Future. What Maynard has accomplished here is impressive and I hope it’s just the beginning.

Final note

Bravo Andrew! (Note: We’ve been ‘internet acquaintances/friends since the first year I started blogging. When I’m referring to him in his professional capacity, he’s Dr. Maynard and when it’s not strictly in his professional capacity, it’s Andrew. For this commentary/review I wanted to emphasize his professional status.)

If you need to see a few more samples of Andrew’s writing, there’s a Nov. 15, 2018 essay on The Conversation, Sci-fi movies are the secret weapon that could help Silicon Valley grow up and a Nov. 21, 2018 article on slate.com, The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants; The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. Enjoy.

****Added at 1700 hours on Nov. 22, 2018: You can purchase Films from the Future here.

*Nov. 23, 2018: I should have been more specific and said ‘academic scientists’. In Canada, the great percentage of scientists are academic. It’s to the point where the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has noted that amongst industrialized countries, Canada has very few industrial scientists in comparison to the others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicine, healing, and big money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infections from pigs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is open access.

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

What is it to be human?

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

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

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

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

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

New wound dressings with nanofibres for tissue regeneration

The Rotary Jet-Spinning manufacturing system was developed specifically as a therapeutic for the wounds of war. The dressings could be a good option for large wounds, such as burns, as well as smaller wounds on the face and hands, where preventing scarring is important. Illustration courtesy of Michael Rosnach/Harvard University

This image really gets the idea of regeneration across to the viewer while also informing you that this is medicine that comes from the military. A March 19,2018 news item on phys.org announces the work,

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed new wound dressings that dramatically accelerate healing and improve tissue regeneration. The two different types of nanofiber dressings, described in separate papers, use naturally-occurring proteins in plants and animals to promote healing and regrow tissue.

Our fiber manufacturing system was developed specifically for the purpose of developing therapeutics for the wounds of war,” said Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the research. “As a soldier in Afghanistan, I witnessed horrible wounds and, at times, the healing process for those wounds was a horror unto itself. This research is a years-long effort by many people on my team to help with these problems.”

Parker is also a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute.

The most recent paper, published in Biomaterials, describes a wound dressing inspired by fetal tissue.

A March 19, 2018 Harvard University John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science news release by Leah Burrows (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides some background information before launching into more detail about this latest work,

In the late 1970s, when scientists first started studying the wound-healing process early in development, they discovered something unexpected: Wounds incurred before the third trimester left no scars. This opened a range of possibilities for regenerative medicine. But for decades, researchers have struggled to replicate those unique properties of fetal skin.

Unlike adult skin, fetal skin has high levels of a protein called fibronectin, which assembles into the extracellular matrix and promotes cell binding and adhesion. Fibronectin has two structures: globular, which is found in blood, and fibrous, which is found in tissue. Even though fibrous fibronectin holds the most promise for wound healing, previous research focused on the globular structure, in part because manufacturing fibrous fibronectin was a major engineering challenge.

But Parker and his team are pioneers in the field of nanofiber engineering.

The researchers made fibrous fibronectin using a fiber-manufacturing platform called Rotary Jet-Spinning (RJS), developed by Parker’s Disease Biophysics Group. RJS works likes a cotton-candy machine — a liquid polymer solution, in this case globular fibronectin dissolved in a solvent, is loaded into a reservoir and pushed out through a tiny opening by centrifugal force as the device spins. As the solution leaves the reservoir, the solvent evaporates and the polymers solidify. The centrifugal force unfolds the globular protein into small, thin fibers. These fibers — less than one micrometer in diameter — can be collected to form a large-scale wound dressing or bandage.

“The dressing integrates into the wound and acts like an instructive scaffold, recruiting different stem cells that are relevant for regeneration and assisting in the healing process before being absorbed into the body,” said Christophe Chantre, a graduate student in the Disease Biophysics Group and first author of the paper.

In in vivo testing, the researchers found that wounds treated with the fibronectin dressing showed 84 percent tissue restoration within 20 days, compared with 55.6 percent restoration in wounds treated with a standard dressing.

The researchers also demonstrated that wounds treated with the fibronectin dressing had almost normal epidermal thickness and dermal architecture, and even regrew hair follicles — often considered one of the biggest challenges in the field of wound healing.

“This is an important step forward,” said Chantre. “Most work done on skin regeneration to date involves complex treatments combining scaffolds, cells, and even growth factors. Here we were able to demonstrate tissue repair and hair follicle regeneration using an entirely material approach. This has clear advantages for clinical translation.”

In another paper published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, the Disease Biophysics Group demonstrated a soy-based nanofiber that also enhances and promotes wound healing.

Soy protein contains both estrogen-like molecules — which have been shown to accelerate wound healing — and bioactive molecules similar to those that build and support human cells.

“Both the soy- and fibronectin-fiber technologies owe their success to keen observations in reproductive medicine,” said Parker. “During a woman’s cycle, when her estrogen levels go high, a cut will heal faster. If you do a surgery on a baby still in the womb, they have scar-less wound healing. Both of these new technologies are rooted in the most fascinating of all the topics in human biology — how we reproduce.”

In a similar way to fibronectin fibers, the research team used RJS to spin ultrathin soy fibers into wound dressings. In experiments, the soy- and cellulose-based dressing demonstrated a 72 percent increase in healing over wounds with no dressing and a 21 percent increase in healing over wounds dressed without soy protein.

“These findings show the great promise of soy-based nanofibers for wound healing,” said Seungkuk Ahn, a graduate student in the Disease Biophysics Group and first author of the paper. “These one-step, cost-effective scaffolds could be the next generation of regenerative dressings and push the envelope of nanofiber technology and the wound-care market.”

Both kinds of dressing, according to researchers, have advantages in the wound-healing space. The soy-based nanofibers — consisting of cellulose acetate and soy protein hydrolysate — are inexpensive, making them a good option for large-scale use, such as on burns. The fibronectin dressings, on the other hand, could be used for smaller wounds on the face and hands, where preventing scarring is important.

Here’s are links and citations for both papers mentioned in the news release,

Soy Protein/Cellulose Nanofiber Scaffolds Mimicking Skin Extracellular Matrix for Enhanced Wound Healing by Seungkuk Ahn, Christophe O. Chantre, Alanna R. Gannon, Johan U. Lind, Patrick H. Campbell, Thomas Grevesse, Blakely B. O’Connor, Kevin Kit Parker. Advanced Healthcare Materials https://doi.org/10.1002/adhm.201701175 First published: 23 January 2018

Production-scale fibronectin nanofibers promote wound closure and tissue repair in a dermal mouse model by Christophe O. Chantre, Patrick H. Campbell, Holly M. Golecki, Adrian T. Buganza, Andrew K. Capulli, Leila F. Deravi, Stephanie Dauth, Sean P. Sheehy, Jeffrey A.Paten. KarlGledhill, Yanne S. Doucet, Hasan E.Abaci, Seungkuk Ahn, Benjamin D.Pope, Jeffrey W.Ruberti, Simon P.Hoerstrup, Angela M.Christiano, Kevin Kit Parker. Biomaterials Volume 166, June 2018, Pages 96-108 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2018.03.006 Available online 5 March 2018

Both papers are behind paywalls although you may want to check with ResearchGate where many researchers make their papers available for free.

One last comment, I noticed this at the end of Burrows’ news release,

The Harvard Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property relating to these projects and is exploring commercialization opportunities.

It reminded me of the patent battle between the Broad Institute (a Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology joint venture) and the University of California at Berkeley over CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes the battle’s outcome.)

Lest we forget, there could be major financial rewards from this work.