Category Archives: health

Nanotechnology tackles nail fungus

I never thought I’d be highlighting nail fungus here but sometimes life throws you a twist and a turn. Researchers at George Washington University (GWU; Washington, DC, US) announce their latest nanotechnology-enabled approach to nail fungus in a July 11, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Onychomycosis, a nail fungus that causes nail disfigurement, pain, and increased risk of soft tissue infection, impacts millions of people worldwide. There are several topical antifungal treatments currently available; however, treatment failure remains high due to a number of factors.

The most recent treatment, a broad spectrum triazole called efinaconazole, is designed to improve nail penetration. It boasts the highest cure rates among other topical antifungals, but the cost for a bottle is more than $600, and full treatment calls for multiple bottles.

A July 11, 2018 GWU news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

Adam Friedman, MD (link is external), professor of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and his team investigated the use of nanotechnology to improve efinaconazole treatment and make it more cost effective. They observed that when nitric oxide-releasing nanoparticles are combined with the efinaconazole, it achieves the same antifungal effects, but at a fraction of the amount of the medication alone needed to impart the same effect.

“Nanotechnology is being studied and employed in many areas of medicine and surgery to better deliver established imaging and therapeutic agents to ultimately improve patient outcomes,” said Friedman. “A quickly emerging roadblock in patient care is, unfortunately, access to medications due to rising cost and poor insurance coverage.”

The study, published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, found that, when combined, the nanoparticles and the medication are more effective than both alone, opening the door to potentially better and more tolerable treatment regimens. An additional benefit is the ability of nanoparticles to access infections in difficult to reach locations, as penetration and retaining activity across the nail plate is a common impediment for many antifungals.

“What we found was that we could impart the same antifungal activity at the highest concentrations tested of either alone by combining them at a fraction of these concentrations,” Friedman explained. “The impact of this combo, which we visualized using electron microscopy as compared to either product alone, highlighted their synergistic damaging effects at concentrations that would be completely safe to human cells.”

Given these results, the authors note that it is worth further researching the synergy of nitric oxide-releasing nanoparticles and efinaconazole against onychomycosis to determine the efficacy of the treatment in a clinical setting.

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

Nitric Oxide Releasing Nanoparticles as a Strategy to Improve Current Onychomycosis Treatments by Caroline B. Costa-Orlandi, Breanne Mordorski, Ludmila M. Baltazar, Maria José S. Mendes-Giannini, Joel M. Friedman, Joshua D. Nosanchuk, Adam J. Friedman. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2018; 17 (7): 717-720 July 2018 Copyright © 2018  http://jddonline.com/articles/dermatology/S1545961618P0717X/1

This paper is behind a paywall.

Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) talk on July 31st. 2018: Test Tubes to Teaching: How Anti-Vaxxers and a Global Financial Crisis Shaped my Career

I received (via email) this Café Scientifique July 15, 2018 notice ,

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, JULY 31ST at 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. NIENKE VAN HOUTEN from THE FACULTY OF HEALTH
SCIENCES AT SFU. Her topic will be:

TEST TUBES TO TEACHING: HOW ANTI-VAXXERS AND A GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS
SHAPED MY CAREER

Part research talk, and part memoir, Dr. van Houten will describe her
career progression from vaccine design scientist to education
researcher. From early childhood, Dr. van Houten developed an
unrelenting interest in human biology and infectious diseases and made
it her goal to become a scientist. Her passion for vaccines came about,
in part, due to the publicity surrounding the infamous retracted paper
in _The Lancet_ that erroneously connected measles vaccination with
autism. Her Ph.D. and postdoctoral research focused on how vaccines
work, and she engineered anti-viral vaccines to produce focused antibody
responses. However, her plan of working in the pharmaceutical industry
was sidelined by the financial crash of 2008, and she was offered a full
time teaching faculty position. This created an opportunity to study how
students think critically about science and apply those findings to
train students to recognize bad science such as that promoted by
anti-vaxxers and other garbage “science” that pervades our society.

We hope to see you there!

I wasn’t able to find out much more about Dr. van Houten and her work but her SFU profile page is here.

University of Waterloo (Canada) team combines wearable tech with artificial intelligence (AI) for health

A May 16, 2018 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert) trumpets the research,

A team of Waterloo researchers found that applying artificial intelligence to the right combination of data retrieved from wearable technology may detect whether your health is failing.

The study, which involved researchers from Waterloo’s Faculties of Applied Health Sciences and Engineering, found that the data from wearable sensors and artificial intelligence that assesses changes in aerobic responses could one day predict whether a person is experiencing the onset of a respiratory or cardiovascular disease.

“The onset of a lot of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has a direct impact on our aerobic fitness,” said Thomas Beltrame, who led the research while at the University of Waterloo, and is now at the Institute of Computing in University of Campinas in Brazil. “In the near future, we believe it will be possible to continuously check your health, even before you realize that you need medical help.”

The study monitored active, healthy men in their twenties who wore a shirt for four days that incorporated sensors for heart rate, breathing and acceleration. They then compared the readings with laboratory responses and found that it was possible to accurately predict health-related benchmarks during daily activities using only the smart shirt.

“The research found a way to process biological signals and generate a meaningful single number to track fitness,” said Richard Hughson, co-author and kinesiology professor at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging.

Beltrame and Hughson co-authored the study with Alexander Wong, Canada Research Chair in artificial intelligence and medical imaging and an engineering professor at Waterloo. He is affiliated with both the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute and the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging. Robert Amelard, of the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging, is also a co-author. The study appears in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

“This multi-disciplinary research is a great example of how artificial intelligence can be a potential game-changer for healthcare by turning data into predictive knowledge to help healthcare professionals better understand an individual’s health,” said Wong. “It can have a significant impact on improving quality of life and well-being.”

Carré Technologies developed the smart shirts, called Hexoskin, used in the research.

The team plans to test these systems on mixed ages and genders, and people with health issues to see how people might wear the sensors to gauge whether their health is failing.

I wonder if this is the 2nd try for publicity about this work. Take a look at the publication date,

Extracting aerobic system dynamics during unsupervised activities of daily living using wearable sensor machine learning models by Thomas Beltrame, Robert Amelard, Alexander Wong, and Richard L. Hughson. Journal of Applied Physiology 124 (2)
Volume 124Issue 2February 2018Pages 473-48 https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00299.2017 [Published] 23 Feb 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Interested parties can find Carré Technologies here.

AI fairytale and April 25, 2018 AI event at Canada Science and Technology Museum*** in Ottawa

These days it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI) or robots and often, it’s both. They’re everywhere and they will take everyone’s jobs, or not, depending on how you view them. Today, I’ve got two artificial intelligence items, the first of which may provoke writers’ anxieties.

Fairytales

The Princess and the Fox is a new fairytale by the Brothers Grimm or rather, their artificially intelligent surrogate according to an April 18, 2018 article on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online news website,

It was recently reported that the meditation app Calm had published a “new” fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.

However, The Princess and the Fox was written not by the brothers, who died over 150 years ago, but by humans using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool.

It’s the first fairy tale written by an AI, claims Calm, and is the result of a collaboration with Botnik Studios – a community of writers, artists and developers. Calm says the technique could be referred to as “literary cloning”.

Botnik employees used a predictive-text program to generate words and phrases that might be found in the original Grimm fairytales. Human writers then pieced together sentences to form “the rough shape of a story”, according to Jamie Brew, chief executive of Botnik.

The full version is available to paying customers of Calm, but here’s a short extract:

“Once upon a time, there was a golden horse with a golden saddle and a beautiful purple flower in its hair. The horse would carry the flower to the village where the princess danced for joy at the thought of looking so beautiful and good.

Advertising for a meditation app?

Of course, it’s advertising and it’s ‘smart’ advertising (wordplay intended). Here’s a preview/trailer,

Blair Marnell’s April 18, 2018 article for SyFy Wire provides a bit more detail,

“You might call it a form of literary cloning,” said Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith. Calm commissioned Botnik to use its predictive text program, Voicebox, to create a new Brothers Grimm story. But first, Voicebox was given the entire collected works of the Brothers Grimm to analyze, before it suggested phrases and sentences based upon those stories. Of course, human writers gave the program an assist when it came to laying out the plot. …

“The Brothers Grimm definitely have a reputation for darkness and many of their best-known tales are undoubtedly scary,” Peter Freedman told SYFY WIRE. Freedman is a spokesperson for Calm who was a part of the team behind the creation of this story. “In the process of machine-human collaboration that generated The Princess and The Fox, we did gently steer the story towards something with a more soothing, calm plot and vibe, that would make it work both as a new Grimm fairy tale and simultaneously as a Sleep Story on Calm.” [emphasis mine]

….

If Marnell’s article is to be believed, Peter Freedman doesn’t hold much hope for writers in the long-term future although we don’t need to start ‘battening down the hatches’ yet.

You can find Calm here.

You can find Botnik  here and Botnik Studios here.

 

AI at Ingenium [Canada Science and Technology Museum] on April 25, 2018

Formerly known (I believe) [*Read the comments for the clarification] as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium is hosting a ‘sold out but there will be a livestream’ Google event. From Ingenium’s ‘Curiosity on Stage Evening Edition with Google – The AI Revolution‘ event page,

Join Google, Inc. and the Canada Science and Technology Museum for an evening of thought-provoking discussions about artificial intelligence.

[April 25, 2018
7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. {ET}
Fees: Free]

Invited speakers from industry leaders Google, Facebook, Element AI and Deepmind will explore the intersection of artificial intelligence with robotics, arts, social impact and healthcare. The session will end with a panel discussion and question-and-answer period. Following the event, there will be a reception along with light refreshments and networking opportunities.

The event will be simultaneously translated into both official languages as well as available via livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel.

Seating is limited

THIS EVENT IS NOW SOLD OUT. Please join us for the livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/cstmweb *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 from someone at Ingenium.***

Speakers

David Usher (Moderator)

David Usher is an artist, best-selling author, entrepreneur and keynote speaker. As a musician he has sold more than 1.4 million albums, won 4 Junos and has had #1 singles singing in English, French and Thai. When David is not making music, he is equally passionate about his other life, as a Geek. He is the founder of Reimagine AI, an artificial intelligence creative studio working at the intersection of art and artificial intelligence. David is also the founder and creative director of the non-profit, the Human Impact Lab at Concordia University [located in Montréal, Québec]. The Lab uses interactive storytelling to revisualize the story of climate change. David is the co-creator, with Dr. Damon Matthews, of the Climate Clock. Climate Clock has been presented all over the world including the United Nations COP 23 Climate Conference and is presently on a three-year tour with the Canada Museum of Science and Innovation’s Climate Change Exhibit.

Joelle Pineau (Facebook)

The AI Revolution:  From Ideas and Models to Building Smart Robots
Joelle Pineau is head of the Facebook AI Research Lab Montreal, and an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. Dr. Pineau’s research focuses on developing new models and algorithms for automatic planning and learning in partially-observable domains. She also applies these algorithms to complex problems in robotics, health-care, games and conversational agents. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and the Journal of Machine Learning Research and is currently President of the International Machine Learning Society. She is a AAAI Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and in 2016 was named a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists by the Royal Society of Canada.

Pablo Samuel Castro (Google)

Building an Intelligent Assistant for Music Creators
Pablo was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal after high school to study at McGill. He stayed in Montreal for the next 10 years, finished his bachelors, worked at a flight simulator company, and then eventually obtained his masters and PhD at McGill, focusing on Reinforcement Learning. After his PhD Pablo did a 10-month postdoc in Paris before moving to Pittsburgh to join Google. He has worked at Google for almost 6 years, and is currently a research Software Engineer in Google Brain in Montreal, focusing on fundamental Reinforcement Learning research, as well as Machine Learning and Music. Aside from his interest in coding/AI/math, Pablo is an active musician (https://www.psctrio.com), loves running (5 marathons so far, including Boston!), and discussing politics and activism.

Philippe Beaudoin (Element AI)

Concrete AI-for-Good initiatives at Element AI
Philippe cofounded Element AI in 2016 and currently leads its applied lab and AI-for-Good initiatives. His team has helped tackle some of the biggest and most interesting business challenges using machine learning. Philippe holds a Ph.D in Computer Science and taught virtual bipeds to walk by themselves during his postdoc at UBC. He spent five years at Google as a Senior Developer and Technical Lead Manager, partly with the Chrome Machine Learning team. Philippe also founded ArcBees, specializing in cloud-based development. Prior to that he worked in the videogame and graphics hardware industries. When he has some free time, Philippe likes to invent new boardgames — the kind of games where he can still beat the AI!

Doina Precup (Deepmind)

Challenges and opportunities for the AI revolution in health care
Doina Precup splits her time between McGill University, where she co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab in the School of Computer Science, and DeepMind Montreal, where she leads the newly formed research team since October 2017.  She got her BSc degree in computer science form the Technical University Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and her MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she was a Fulbright fellow. Her research interests are in the areas of reinforcement learning, deep learning, time series analysis, and diverse applications of machine learning in health care, automated control and other fields. She became a senior member of AAAI in 2015, a Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning in 2016 and a Senior Fellow of CIFAR in 2017.

Interesting, oui? Not a single expert from Ottawa or Toronto. Well, Element AI has an office in Toronto. Still, I wonder why this singular focus on AI in Montréal. After all, one of the current darlings of AI, machine learning, was developed at the University of Toronto which houses the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR),  the institution in charge of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the Vector Institutes (more about that in my March 31,2017 posting).

Enough with my musing: For those of us on the West Coast, there’s an opportunity to attend via livestream from 4 pm to 7 pm on April 25, 2018 on xxxxxxxxx. *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 and clarification as the relationship between Ingenium and the Canada Science and Technology Museum from someone at Ingenium.***

For more about Element AI, go here; for more about DeepMind, go here for information about parent company in the UK and the most I dug up about their Montréal office was this job posting; and, finally , Reimagine.AI is here.

Science for the global citizen course at McMaster University in Winter 2018

It’s never too early to start planning for your course load if a June 20, 2017 McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) news release is to be believed,

In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions.This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen.

The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration.

Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.

After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

3 
 63 
 1 
 68 How can science help address the key challenges in our society? How does society affect the way that science is conducted? Do citizens have a strong enough understanding of science and its methods to answer these and other similar questions? In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions. This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen. The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration. Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy. After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

I’m glad to see this kind of course being offered. It does seem a bit odd that none of the instructors involved with this course appear to be from the social sciences or humanities. Drs. Dej, Harvey, and da Silva all have a background in biological sciences and Dr. Symons is a physicist. Taking another look at this line from the course description, “The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications,” has me wondering how these scientists are going to cover the material, especially as I couldn’t find any papers on these topics written by any of these instructors. This section puzzles me even more, “… highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.” Again none of these instructors seem to have published on the topic of science in popular media or science public policy.

Guest speakers can help to fill in the blanks but with four instructors (and I would imagine a tight budget) it’s hard to believe there are going to be that many guests.

I appreciate that this is more of what they used to call a ‘survey course’ meant to introduce a number of ideas rather than conveying any in depth information but I do find the instructors’ apparent lack of theoretical knowledge about anything other than their respective fields of science somewhat disconcerting.

Regardless, I wish both the instructors and the students all the best.

Biohackers (also known as bodyhackers or grinders) become more common?

Stephen Melendez’s June 11, 2016 story about biohackers/bodyhackers/grinders for Fast Company sports a striking image in the banner, an x-ray of a pair hands featuring some mysterious additions to the webbing between thumbs and forefingers (Note: Links have been removed),

Tim Shank can guarantee he’ll never leave home without his keys. Why? His house keys are located inside his body.

Shank, the president of the Minneapolis futurist group TwinCities+, has a chip installed in his hand that can communicate electronically with his front door and tell it to unlock itself. His wife has one, too.

In fact, Shank has several chips in his hand, including a near field communication (NFC) chip like the ones used in Apple Pay and similar systems, which stores a virtual business card with contact information for TwinCities+. “[For] people with Android phones, I can just tap their phone with my hand, right over the chip, and it will send that information to their phone,” he says. In the past, he’s also used a chip to store a bitcoin wallet.

Shank is one of a growing number of “biohackers” who implant hardware ranging from microchips to magnets inside their bodies.

Certainly the practice seems considerably more developed since the first time it was mentioned here in a May 27, 2010 posting about a researcher who’d implanted a chip into his body which he then contaminated with a computer virus. In the comments, you’ll find Amal Grafstraa who’s mentioned in the Melendez article at some length, from the Melendez article (Note: Links have been removed),

Some biohackers use their implants in experimental art projects. Others who have disabilities or medical conditions use them to improve their quality of life, while still others use the chips to extend the limits of human perception. …

Experts sometimes caution that the long-term health risks of the practice are still unknown. But many biohackers claim that, if done right, implants can be no more dangerous than getting a piercing or tattoo. In fact, professional body piercers are frequently the ones tasked with installing these implants, given that they possess the training and sterilization equipment necessary to break people’s skin safely.

“When you talk about things like risk, things like putting it in your body, the reality is the risk of having one of these installed is extremely low—it’s even lower than an ear piercing,” claims Amal Graafstra, the founder of Dangerous Things, a biohacking supply company.

Graafstra, who is also the author of the book RFID Toys, says he first had an RFID chip installed in his hand in 2005, which allowed him to unlock doors without a key. When the maker movement took off a few years later, and as more hackers began to explore what they could put inside their bodies, he founded Dangerous Things with the aim of ensuring these procedures were done safely.

“I decided maybe it’s time to wrap a business model around this and make sure that the things people are trying to put in their bodies are safe,” he says. The company works with a network of trained body piercers and offers online manuals and videos for piercers looking to get up to speed on the biohacking movement.

At present, these chips are capable of verifying users’ identities and opening doors. And according to Graafstra, a next-generation chip will have enough on-board cryptographic power to potentially work with credit card terminals securely.

“The technology is there—we can definitely talk to payment terminals with it—but we don’t have the agreements in place with banks [and companies like] MasterCard to make that happen,” he says.

Paying for goods with an implantable chip might sound unusual for consumers and risky for banks, but Graafstra thinks the practice will one day become commonplace. He points to a survey released by Visa last year that found that 25% of Australians are “at least slightly interested” in paying for purchases through a chip implanted in their bodies.

Melendez’s article is fascinating and well worth reading in its entirety. It’s not all keys and commerce as this next and last excerpt shows,

Other implantable technology has more of an aesthetic focus: Pittsburgh biohacking company Grindhouse Wetware offers a below-the-skin, star-shaped array of LED lights called Northstar. While the product was inspired by the on-board lamps of a device called Circadia that Grindhouse founder Tim Cannon implanted to send his body temperature to a smartphone, the commercially available Northstar features only the lights and is designed to resemble natural bioluminescence.

“This particular device is mainly aesthetic,” says Grindhouse spokesman Ryan O’Shea. “It can backlight tattoos or be used in any kind of interpretive dance, or artists can use it in various ways.”

The lights activate in the presence of a magnetic field—one that is often provided by magnets already implanted in the same user’s fingertips. Which brings up another increasingly common piece of bio-hardware: magnetic finger implants. ….

There are other objects that can be implanted in bodies. In one case, an artist, Wafaa Bilal had a camera implanted into the back of his head for a 3rd eye. I mentioned the Iraqi artist in my April 13, 2011 posting titled: Blood, memristors, cyborgs plus brain-controlled computers, prosthetics, and art (scroll down about 75% of the way). Bilal was unable to find a doctor who would perform the procedure so he went to a body-piercing studio. Unfortunately, the posting chronicles his infection and subsequent removal of the camera (h/t Feb. 11, 2011 BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online article).

Observations

It’s been a while since I’ve written about bodyhacking and I’d almost forgotten about the practice relegating it to the category of “one of those trendy ideas that get left behind as interest shifts.” My own interest had shifted more firmly to neuroprosthetics (the integration of prostheses into the nervous system).

I had coined a tag for bodyhacking and neuroprostheses: machine/flesh which covers both those topics and more (e.g. cyborgs) as we continue to integrate machines into our bodies.

Final note

I was reminded of Wafaa Bilal recently when checking out a local arts magazine, Preview: the gallery guide, June/July/August 2016 issue. His work (the 168:01show) is being shown in Calgary, Alberta, Canada at the Esker Foundation from May 27 to August 28, 2016,

168:01 is a major solo exhibition of new and recent work by Iraqi-born, New York-based artist Wafaa Bilal, renowned for his online performances and technologically driven encounters that speak to the impact of international politics on individual lives.

In 168:01, Bilal takes the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, as a starting point for a sculptural installation of a library. The Bayt al-Hikma was a major academic center during the Islamic Golden Age where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars studied the humanities and science. By the middle of the Ninth Century, the House of Wisdom had accumulated the largest library in the world. Four centuries later, a Mongol siege laid waste to all the libraries of Baghdad along with the House of Wisdom. According to some accounts, the library was thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for the Mongol army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days – or 168 hours, after which the books were drained of knowledge. Today, the Bayt al-Hikma represents one of the most well-known examples of historic cultural loss as a casualty of wartime.

For this exhibition, Bilal has constructed a makeshift library filled with empty white books. The white books symbolize the priceless cultural heritage destroyed at Bayt al-Hikma as well as the libraries, archives, and museums whose systematic decimation by occupying forces continues to ravage his homeland. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the white books will slowly be replaced with visitor donations from a wishlist compiled by The College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, whose library was looted and destroyed in 2003. At the end of each week a volunteer unpacks the accumulated shipments, catalogues each new book by hand, and places the books on the shelves. At the end of the exhibition, all the donated books will be sent to the University of Baghdad to help rebuild their library. This exchange symbolizes the power of individuals to rectify violence inflicted on cultural spaces that are meant to preserve and store knowledge for future generations.

In conjunction with the library, Bilal presents a powerful suite of photographs titled The Ashes Series that brings the viewer closer to images of violence and war in the Middle East. In an effort to foster empathy and humanize the onslaught of violent images that inundate Western media during wartime, Bilal has reconstructed journalistic images of the destruction caused by the Iraq War. He writes, “Reconstructing the destructed spaces is a way to exist in them, to share them with an audience, and to provide a layer of distance, as the original photographs are too violent and run the risk of alienating the viewer. It represents an attempt to make sense of the destruction and to preserve the moment of serenity after the dust has settled, to give the ephemeral moment extended life in a mix of beauty and violence.” In the photograph Al-Mutanabbi Street from The Ashes Series, the viewer encounters dilapidated historic and modern buildings on a street covered with layers upon layers of rubble and fragments of torn books. Bilal’s images emanate a slowness that deepens engagement between the viewer and the image, thereby inviting them to share the burden of obliterated societies and reimagine a world built on the values of peace and hope.

The House of Wisdom has been mentioned here a few times perhaps most comprehensively and in the context of the then recent opening of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST; located in Saudi Arabia) in this Sept. 24, 2009 posting (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Anyone interested in hacking their own body?

 

I expect you can find out more Amal Grafstraa’s website.

Chemicals that slow biological aging in yeast might help humans too

A March 15, 2016 Concordia University (Montréal, Canada) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes research that may slow the aging process (Note: Links have been removed),

Even though the search for the Fountain of Youth dates back to the ancient Greeks, the quest to live forever continues today. Indeed, it has been said that the ability to slow the aging process would be the most important medical discovery in the modern era.

A new study published in the journal Oncotarget by researchers from Concordia and the Quebec-based biotech company Idunn Technologies may have uncovered an important factor: plant extracts containing the six best groups of anti-aging molecules ever seen.

For the study, the research team combed through Idunn Technologies’ extensive biological library, conducting more than 10,000 trials to screen for plant extracts that would increase the chronological lifespan of yeast.

Why yeast? Cellularly speaking, aging progresses similarly in both yeast and humans. It’s the best cellular model to understand how the anti-aging process takes place.

“In total, we found six new groups of molecules that decelerate the chronological aging of yeast,” says Vladimir Titorenko, the study’s senior author and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia. He carried out the study with a group of Concordia students and Éric Simard, the founder of Idunn Technologies, which is named for the goddess of rejuvenation in Norse mythology.

This has important implications not only for slowing the aging process, but also for preventing certain diseases associated with aging, including cancer.

“Rather than focus on curing the individual disease, interventions on the molecular processes of aging can simultaneously delay the onset and progression of most age-related disorders. This kind of intervention is predicted to have a much larger effect on healthy aging and life expectancy than can be attained by treating individual diseases,” says Simard, who notes that these new molecules will soon be available in commercial products.

“These results also provide new insights into mechanisms through which chemicals extracted from certain plants can slow biological aging,” says Titorenko.

One of these groups of molecules is the most potent longevity-extending pharmacological intervention yet described in scientific literature: a specific extract of willow bark.

Willow bark was commonly used during the time of Hippocrates, when people were advised to chew on it to relieve pain and fever. The study showed that it increases the average and maximum chronological lifespan of yeast by 475 per cent and 369 per cent, respectively. This represents a much greater effect than rapamycin and metformin, the two best drugs known for their anti-aging effects.

“These six extracts have been recognized as non-toxic by Health Canada, and already exhibit recognized health benefits in humans,” says Simard.

“But first, more research must be done. That’s why Idunn Technologies is collaborating with four other universities for six research programs, to go beyond yeast, and work with an animal model of aging, as well as two cancer models.”

A rather interesting image was included with the news release,

The Fountain of Youth, a 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Courtesy: Concordia University

The Fountain of Youth, a 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Courtesy: Concordia University

There’s also this,

An extract of willow bark has shown to be one of the most potent longevity-extending pharmacological interventions yet described in scientific literature. Courtesy: Concordia University

An extract of willow bark has shown to be one of the most potent longevity-extending pharmacological interventions yet described in scientific literature. Courtesy: Concordia University

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

Discovery of plant extracts that greatly delay yeast chronological aging and have different effects on longevity-defining cellular processes by Vicky Lutchman, Younes Medkour, Eugenie Samson, Anthony Arlia-Ciommo, Pamela Dakik, Berly Cortes, Rachel Feldman, Sadaf Mohtashami, Mélissa McAuley, Marisa Chancharoen, Belise Rukundo, Éric Simard, Vladimir I. Titorenko. DOI: 10.18632/oncotarget.7665 Published: February 24, 2016

This appears to be an open access paper.

You can find out more about Idunn Technologies here but you will need French language reading skills as the English language version of the site is not yet available.

Science events (Einstein, getting research to patients, sleep, and art/science) in Vancouver (Canada), Jan. 23 – 28, 2016

There are five upcoming science events in seven days (Jan. 23 – 28, 2016) in the Vancouver area.

Einstein Centenary Series

The first is a Saturday morning, Jan. 23, 2016 lecture, the first for 2016 in a joint TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), UBC (University of British Columbia), and SFU (Simon Fraser University) series featuring Einstein’s  work and its implications. From the event brochure (pdf), which lists the entire series,

TRIUMF, UBC and SFU are proud to present the 2015-2016 Saturday morning lecture series on the frontiers of modern physics. These free lectures are a level appropriate for high school students and members of the general public.

Parallel lecture series will be held at TRIUMF on the UBC South Campus, and at SFU Surrey Campus.

Lectures start at 10:00 am and 11:10 am. Parking is available.

For information, registration and directions, see :
http://www.triumf.ca/saturday-lectures

January 23, 2016 TRIUMF Auditorium (UBC, Vancouver)
1. General Relativity – the theory (Jonathan Kozaczuk, TRIUMF)
2. Einstein and Light: stimulated emission, photoelectric effect and quantum theory (Mark Van Raamsdonk, UBC)

January 30, 2016 SFU Surrey Room 2740 (SFU, Surrey Campus)

1. General Relativity – the theory (Jonathan Kozaczuk, TRIUMF)
2. Einstein and Light: stimulated emission, photoelectric effect and quantum theory (Mark Van Raamsdonk, UBC)

I believe these lectures are free. One more note, they will be capping off this series with a special lecture by Kip Thorne (astrophysicist and consultant for the movie Interstellar) at Science World, on Thursday, April 14, 2016. More about that * at a closer date.

Café Scientifique

On Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 7:30 pm in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.]), Café Scientifique will be hosting a talk about science and serving patients (from the Jan. 5, 2016 announcement),

Our speakers for the evening will be Dr. Millan Patel and Dr. Shirin Kalyan.  The title of their talk is:

Helping Science to Serve Patients

Science in general and biotechnology in particular are auto-catalytic. That is, they catalyze their own evolution and so generate breakthroughs at an exponentially increasing rate.  The experience of patients is not exponentially getting better, however.  This talk, with a medical geneticist and an immunologist who believe science can deliver far more for patients, will focus on structural and cultural impediments in our system and ways they and others have developed to either lower or leapfrog the barriers. We hope to engage the audience in a highly interactive discussion to share thoughts and perspectives on this important issue.

There is additional information about Dr. Millan Patel here and Dr. Shirin Kalyan here. It would appear both speakers are researchers and academics and while I find the emphasis on the patient and the acknowledgement that medical research benefits are not being delivered in quantity or quality to patients, it seems odd that they don’t have a clinician (a doctor who deals almost exclusively with patients as opposed to two researchers) to add to their perspective.

You may want to take a look at my Jan. 22, 2016 ‘open science’ and Montreal Neurological Institute posting for a look at how researchers there are responding to the issue.

Curiosity Collider

This is an art/science event from an organization that sprang into existence sometime during summer 2015 (my July 7, 2015 posting featuring Curiosity Collider).

When: 8:00pm on Wednesday, January 27, 2016. Door opens at 7:30pm.
Where: Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).
Cost: $5.00 cover (sliding scale) at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events.

Part I. Speakers

Part II. Open Mic

  • 90 seconds to share your art-science ideas. Think they are “ridiculous”? Well, we think it could be ridiculously awesome – we are looking for creative ideas!
  • Don’t have an idea (yet)? Contribute by sharing your expertise.
  • Chat with other art-science enthusiasts, strike up a conversation to collaborate, all disciplines/backgrounds welcome.
  • Want to showcase your project in the future? Participate in our fall art-science competition (more to come)!

Follow updates on twitter via @ccollider or #CollideConquer

Good luck on the open mic (should you have a project)!

Brain Talks

This particular Brain Talk event is taking place at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH; there is also another Brain Talks series which takes place at the University of British Columbia). Yes, members of the public can attend the VGH version; they didn’t throw me out the last time I was there. Here’s more about the next VGH Brain Talks,

Sleep: biological & pathological perspectives

Thursday, Jan 28, 6:00pm @ Paetzold Auditorium, Vancouver General Hospital

Speakers:

Peter Hamilton, Sleep technician ~ Sleep Architecture

Dr. Robert Comey, MD ~ Sleep Disorders

Dr. Maia Love, MD ~ Circadian Rhythms

Panel discussion and wine and cheese reception to follow!

Please RSVP here

You may want to keep in mind that the event is organized by people who don’t organize events often. Nice people but you may need to search for crackers for your cheese and your wine comes out of a box (and I think it might have been self-serve the time I attended).

What a fabulous week we have ahead of us—Happy Weekend!

*’when’ removed from the sentence on March 28, 2016.

Centralized depot (Wikipedia style) for data on neurons

The decades worth of data that has been collected about the billions of neurons in the brain is astounding. To help scientists make sense of this “brain big data,” researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used data mining to create http://www.neuroelectro.org, a publicly available website that acts like Wikipedia, indexing physiological information about neurons.

opens a March 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

The site will help to accelerate the advance of neuroscience research by providing a centralized resource for collecting and comparing data on neuronal function. A description of the data available and some of the analyses that can be performed using the site are published online by the Journal of Neurophysiology

A March 30, 2015 Carnegie Mellon University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes, in more detail,  the endeavour and what the scientists hope to achieve,

The neurons in the brain can be divided into approximately 300 different types based on their physical and functional properties. Researchers have been studying the function and properties of many different types of neurons for decades. The resulting data is scattered across tens of thousands of papers in the scientific literature. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon turned to data mining to collect and organize these data in a way that will make possible, for the first time, new methods of analysis.

“If we want to think about building a brain or re-engineering the brain, we need to know what parts we’re working with,” said Nathan Urban, interim provost and director of Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHubSM neuroscience initiative. “We know a lot about neurons in some areas of the brain, but very little about neurons in others. To accelerate our understanding of neurons and their functions, we need to be able to easily determine whether what we already know about some neurons can be applied to others we know less about.”

Shreejoy J. Tripathy, who worked in Urban’s lab when he was a graduate student in the joint Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) Program in Neural Computation, selected more than 10,000 published papers that contained physiological data describing how neurons responded to various inputs. He used text mining algorithms to “read” each of the papers. The text mining software found the portions of each paper that identified the type of neuron studied and then isolated the electrophysiological data related to the properties of that neuronal type. It also retrieved information about how each of the experiments in the literature was completed, and corrected the data to account for any differences that might be caused by the format of the experiment. Overall, Tripathy, who is now a postdoc at the University of British Columbia, was able to collect and standardize data for approximately 100 different types of neurons, which he published on the website http://www.neuroelectro.org.

Since the data on the website was collected using text mining, the researchers realized that it was likely to contain errors related to extraction and standardization. Urban and his group validated much of the data, but they also created a mechanism that allows site users to flag data for further evaluation. Users also can contribute new data with minimal intervention from site administrators, similar to Wikipedia.

“It’s a dynamic environment in which people can collect, refine and add data,” said Urban, who is the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and a member of the CNBC. “It will be a useful resource to people doing neuroscience research all over the world.”

Ultimately, the website will help researchers find groups of neurons that share the same physiological properties, which could provide a better understanding of how a neuron functions. For example, if a researcher finds that a type of neuron in the brain’s neocortex fires spontaneously, they can look up other neurons that fire spontaneously and access research papers that address this type of neuron. Using that information, they can quickly form hypotheses about whether or not the same mechanisms are at play in both the newly discovered and previously studied neurons.

To demonstrate how neuroelectro.org could be used, the researchers compared the electrophysiological data from more than 30 neuron types that had been most heavily studied in the literature. These included pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus, which are responsible for memory, and dopamine neurons in the midbrain, thought to be responsible for reward-seeking behaviors and addiction, among others. The site was able to find many expected similarities between the different types of neurons, and some similarities that were a surprise to researchers. Those surprises represent promising areas for future research.

In ongoing work, the Carnegie Mellon researchers are comparing the data on neuroelectro.org with other kinds of data, including data on neurons’ patterns of gene expression. For example, Urban’s group is using another publicly available resource, the Allen Brain Atlas, to find whether groups of neurons with similar electrical function have similar gene expression.

“It would take a lot of time, effort and money to determine both the physiological properties of a neuron and its gene expression,” Urban said. “Our website will help guide this research, making it much more efficient.”

The researchers have produced a brief video describing neurons and their project,

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

Brain-wide analysis of electrophysiological diversity yields novel categorization of mammalian neuron types by Shreejoy J Tripathy, Shawn D. Burton, Matthew Geramita, Richard C. Gerkin, and Nathaniel N. Urban. Journal of Neurophysiology Published 25 March 2015 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00237.2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Overpromising and underdelivering: genome, stem cells, gene therapy and nano food

When people talk about overpromising (aka hype/hyperbole) and science, they’re usually referring to overexcited marketing collateral and/or a public relations initiative and/or news media coverage.  Scientists themselves don’t tend to be identified as one of the sources for hype even when that’s clearly the case. That’s right, scientists are people too and sometimes they get carried away by their enthusiasms as Emily Yoffe notes in her excellent Slate essay, The Medical Revolution; Where are the cures promised by stem cells, gene therapy, and the human genome? From Yoffe’s essay,

Dr. J. William Langston has been researching Parkinson’s disease for 25 years. At one time, it seemed likely he’d have to find another disease to study, because a cure for Parkinson’s looked imminent. In the late 1980s, the field of regenerative medicine seemed poised to make it possible for doctors to put healthy tissue in a damaged brain, reversing the destruction caused by the disease.

Langston was one of many optimists. In 1999, the then-head of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Dr. Gerald Fischbach, testified before the Senate that with “skill and luck,” Parkinson’s could be cured in five to 10 years. Now Langston, who is 67, doesn’t think he’ll see a Parkinson’s cure in his professional lifetime. He no longer uses “the C word” and acknowledges he and others were naive. [emphasis mine] He understands the anger of patients who, he says, “are getting quite bitter” that they remain ill, long past the time when they thought they would have been restored to health.

The disappointments are so acute in part because the promises have been so big. Over the past two decades, we’ve been told that a new age of molecular medicine—using gene therapy, stem cells, and the knowledge gleaned from unlocking the human genome—would bring us medical miracles. [emphasis mine] Just as antibiotics conquered infectious diseases and vaccines eliminated the scourges of polio and smallpox, the ability to manipulate our cells and genes is supposed to vanquish everything from terrible inherited disorders, such as Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, to widespread conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Yoffe goes on to outline the problems that researchers encounter when trying to ‘fix’ what’s gone wrong.

Parkinson’s disease was long held out as the model for new knowledge and technologies eradicating illnesses. Instead, it has become the model for its unforeseen consequences. [emphasis mine]

Langston, head of the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center, explains that scientists believed the damage to patients took place in a discrete part of the brain, the substantia nigra. “It was a small target. All we’d have to do was replace the missing cells, do it once, and that would cure the disease,” Langston says. “We were wrong about that. This disease hits many other areas of the brain. You can’t just put transplants here and there. The brain is not a pincushion.”

Disease of all kinds have proven to be infinitely more complex than first realized. Disease is not ’cause and effect’ driven so much as it is a process with an infinite number of potential inputs and any number of potential outcomes. Take for example gene therapy (Note: the human genome project was supposed to yield gene therapies),

In some ways, gene therapy for boys with a deadly immune disorder, X-linked severe combined immune deficiency, also known as “bubble boy” disease, is the miracle made manifest. Inserting good genes into these children has allowed some to live normal lives. Unfortunately, within a few years of treatment, a significant minority have developed leukemia. The gene therapy, it turns out, activated existing cancer-causing genes in these children. This results in what the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, calls “the depressing calculus” of curing an invariably fatal disease—and hoping it doesn’t cause a sometimes-fatal one.

For me, it seems that that the human genome project was akin to taking a clock apart. Looking at the constituent parts and replacing broken ones does not guarantee that you will be able assemble a more efficient working version unless you know how the clock worked in the first place. We still don’t understand the basic parts, the genes,  interact with each other, within their environment, or with external inputs.

The state of our ignorance is illustrated by the recent sequencing of the genome of Bishop Desmond Tutu and four Bushmen. Three of the Bushmen had a gene mutation associated with a liver disease that kills people while young. But the Bushmen are all over 80—which means either the variation doesn’t actually cause the disease, or there are other factors protecting the Bushmen.

As for the pressures acting on the scientists themselves,

There are forces, both external and internal, on scientists that almost require them to oversell. Without money, there’s no science. Researchers must constantly convince administrators who control tax dollars, investors, and individual donors that the work they are doing will make a difference. Nancy Wexler says that in order to get funding, “You have to promise cures, that you’ll meet certain milestones within a certain time frame.”

The infomercial-level hype for both gene therapy and stem cells is not just because scientists are trying to convince funders, but because they want to believe. [emphases mine]

Scientific advances as one of Yoffe’s interview subjects points out involve a process dogged with failure and setbacks requiring an attitude of humility laced with patience and practiced over decades before an ‘overnight success’ occurs, if it ever does.

I was reminded of Yoffe’s article after reading a nano food article recently written by Kate Kelland for Reuters,

In a taste of things to come, food scientists say they have cooked up a way of using nanotechnology to make low-fat or fat-free foods just as appetizing and satisfying as their full-fat fellows.

The implications could be significant in combating the spread of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

There are two promising areas of research. First, they are looking at ways to slow digestion,

One thing they might look into is work by scientists at Britain’s Institute of Food Research (IFR), who said last month they had found an unexpected synergy that helped break down fat and might lead to new ways of slowing digestion, and ultimately to creating foods that made consumers feel fuller.

“Much of the fat in processed foods is eaten in the form of emulsions such as soups, yoghurt, ice cream and mayonnaise,” said the IFR’s Peter Wilde. “We are unpicking the mechanisms of digestion used to break them down so we can design fats in a rational way that are digested more slowly.”

The idea is that if digestion is slower, the final section of the intestine called the ileum will be put on its “ileal brake,” sending a signal to the consumer that means they feel full even though they have eaten less fat

This sounds harmless and it’s even possible it’s a good idea but then replacing diseased tissue with healthy tissue, as they tried with Parkinson’s Disease gene therapies, seemed like a good idea too. Just how well is the digestive process understood?

As for the second promising area of research,

Experts see promise in another nano technique which involves encapsulating nutrients in bubble-like structures known as vesicles that can be engineered to break down and release their contents at specific stages in the digestive system.

According to Vic Morris, a nano expert at the IFR, this technique in a larger form, micro-encapsulation, was well established in the food industry. The major difference with nano-encapsulation was that the smaller size might be able to take nutrients further or deliver them to more appropriate places. [emphasis mine]

They’ve been talking about trying to encapsulate and target medicines to more appropriate places and, as far as I’m aware, to no avail. I sense a little overenthusiasm on the experts’ part. Kelland does try to counterbalance this by discussing other issues with nanofood such as secretiveness about the food companies’ research, experts’ concerns over nanoparticles, and public concerns over genetically modified food. Still the allure of ‘all you can eat with no consequences’ is likely to overshadow any journalist’s attempt at balanced reporting with resulting disappointment when somebody realizes it’s all much more complicated than we thought.

Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 22, 2010 posting ( Protein-based Nanotubes Pass Electrical Signals Between Cells) on his Nanoclast blog offers more proof that we still have a lot to learn about basic biological processes,

A few years back, scientists led by Hans-Hermann Gerdes at the University of Bergen noticed that there were nanoscale tubes connecting cells sometimes over significant distances. This discovery launched a field known somewhat by the term in the biological community as the “nanotube field.”

Microbiologists remained somewhat skeptical on what this phenomenon was and weren’t entirely pleased with some explanations offered because they seemed to fall outside “existing biological concepts.”

So let’s start summing up.  The team notices nanotubes that connect cells over distances which microbiologists have difficulty accepting as “they [seem] to fall outside existing biological concepts. [emphasis mine] Now the team has published a paper which suggests that electrical signals pass through the nanotubes and that a ‘gap junction’ enables transmission to nonadjacent cells.  (Dexter’s description provides  more technical detail in an accessible writing style.)

As Dexter notes,

Another key biological question it helps address–or complicate, as the case may be–is the complexity of the human brain. This research makes the brain drastically more complex than originally thought, according to Gerdes. [emphasis mine]

Getting back to where I started, scientists are people too. They have their enthusiasms as well as pressure to get grants and produce results for governments and other investors, not to mention their own egos.  And while I’ve focused on the biological and medical sciences in this article, I think that all the sciences yield more questions than answers and that everything is far more complicated and  interconnected than we have yet to realize.