Category Archives: medicine

A Vancouver (Canada) connection to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

Canada’s NanoMedicines Innovation Network (NMIN) must have been excited over the COVID-19 vaccine news (Pfizer Nov. 9, 2020 news release) since it’s a Canadian company (Acuitas Therapeutics) that is providing the means of delivering the vaccine once it enters the body.

Here’s the company’s president and CEO [chief executive officer], Dr. Thomas Madden explaining his company’s delivery system (from Acuitas’ news and events webpage),

For anyone who might find a textual description about the vaccine helpful, I have a Nov. 9, 2020 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company,

… a handful of small biotech companies began scrambling to develop vaccines using an as-yet-unproven technology platform that relies on something called messenger RNA [ribonucleic acid], usually shortened to mRNA …

Like other vaccines, mRNA vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a threat like a virus and begin producing antibodies to protect itself. But while traditional vaccines often use inactivated doses of the organisms that cause disease, mRNA vaccines are designed to make the body produce those proteins itself. Messenger RNA—a molecule that contains instructions for cells to make DNA—is injected into cells. In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines provide instructions for cells to start producing the “spike” protein of the new coronavirus, the protein that helps the virus get into cells. On its own, the spike protein isn’t harmful. But it triggers the immune system to begin a defensive response. As Bill Gates, who has supported companies like Moderna and BioNTech through the Gates Foundation, has described it, “you essentially turn your body into its own manufacturing unit.”

Amy Judd’s Nov. 9, 2020 article for Global news online explains (or you can just take another look at the video to refresh your memory) how the Acuitas technology fits into the vaccine picture,

Vancouver-based Acuitas Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, is playing a key role through a technology known as lipid nanoparticles, which deliver messenger RNA into cells.

“The technology we provide to our partners is lipid nanoparticles and BioNTech and Pfizer are developing a vaccine that’s using a messenger RNA that tells our cells how to make a protein that’s actually found in the COVID-19 virus,” Dr. Thomas Madden, president and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics, told Global News Monday [Nov. 9, 2020].

“But the messenger RNA can’t work by itself, it needs a delivery technology to protect this after it’s administered and then to carry it into the cells where it can be expressed and give rise to an immune response.”

Madden said they like to think of the lipid nanoparticles as protective wrapping around a fragile glass ornament [emphasis mine] being shipped to your house online. That protective wrapping would then make sure the ornament made it to your house, through your front door, then unwrap itself and leave in your hallway, ready for you to come and grab it when you came home.

Acuitas Therapeutics employs 29 people and Madden said he believes everyone is feeling very proud of their work.

“Not many people are aware of the history of this technology and the fact that it originated in Vancouver,” he added.

“Dr. Pieter Cullis was one of the key scientists who brought together a team to develop this technology many, many years ago. UBC and Vancouver and companies associated with those scientists have been at the global centre of this technology for many years now.

“I think we’ve been looking for a light at the end of the tunnel for quite some time. I think everybody has been hoping that a vaccine would be able to provide the protection we need to move out of our current situation and I think this is now a confirmation that this hope wasn’t misplaced.”

Nanomedicine in Vancouver

For anyone who’s curious about the Canadian nanomedicine scene, you can find out more about it on Canada’s NanoMedicines Innovation Network (NMIN) website. They recently held a virtual event (Vancouver Nanomedicine Day) on Sept. 17, 2020 (see my Sept. 11, 2020 posting for details), which featured a presentation about Aquitas’ technology.

Happily, the organizers have posted videos for most of the sessions. Dr. Ying Tam of Acuitas made this presentation (about 22 mins. running time) “A Novel Vaccine Approach Using Messenger RNA‐Lipid Nanoparticles: Preclinical and Clinical Perspectives.” If you’re interested in that video or any of the others go to the NanoMedicines Innovation Network’s Nanomedicine Day 2020 webpage.

Acuitas Therapeutics can be found here.

Congratulations to Molly Shoichet (her hydrogels are used in regenerative medicine and more) for winning the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal

I imagine that most anyone who’s been in contact with Ms. Shoichet is experiencing a thrill on hearing this morning’s (November 10, 2020) news about winning Canada’s highest honour for science and engineering research. (Confession: she, very kindly, once gave me a brief interview for a posting on this blog, more about that later).

Why Molly Shoichet won the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal

Emily Chung’s Nov. 10, 2020 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website announces the exciting news (Note: Links have been removed),

A Toronto chemical engineering professor has won the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, the country’s top science prize, for her work designing gels that mimic human tissues.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced Tuesday [Nov. 10, 2020] that Molly Shoichet, professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto is this year’s recipient of the award, which recognizes “sustained excellence” and “overall influence” of research conducted in Canada in the natural sciences or engineering.

Shoichet’s hydrogels are used for drug development and  delivery and regenerative medicine to heal injuries and treat diseases.

NSERC said Shoichet’s work has led to the development of several “game-changing” applications of such materials. They “delivered a crucial breakthrough” by allowing cells to be grown in three dimensions as they do in the body, rather than the two dimensions they typically do in a petri dish.

Hydrogels are polymer materials — materials such as plastics, made of repeating units — that become swollen with water.

“If you’ve ever eaten Jell-o, that’s a hydrogel,” Shoichet said. Slime and the absorbent material inside disposable diapers are also hydrogels.

Shoichet was born in Toronto, and studied science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduating, she worked in the biotech industry alongside “brilliant biologists,” she said. She noticed that the biologists’ research was limited by what types of materials were available.

As an engineer, she realized she could help by custom designing materials for biologists. She could make materials specifically suit their needs, to answer their specific questions by designing hydrogels to mimic particular tissues.

Her collaborations with biologists have also generated three spinoff companies, including AmacaThera, which was recently approved to run human trials of a long-acting anesthetic delivered with an injectable hydrogel to deal with post-surgical pain.

Shoichet noted that drugs given to deal with that kind of pain lead to a quarter of opioid addictions, which have been a deadly problem in Canada and around the world.

“What we’re really excited about is not only meeting that critical need of providing people with greater pain relief for a sustained period of time, but also possibly putting a dent in the operation,” she said. 

Liz Do’s Nov. 10, 2020 University of Toronto news release provides more details (Note: Links have been removed),

The  Herzberg Gold Medal is awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in recognition of research contributions characterized by both excellence and influence.

“I was completely overwhelmed when I was told the good news,” says Shoichet. “There are so many exceptional people who’ve won this award and I admire them. To think of my peers putting me in that same category is really incredible.”

A pioneer in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and drug delivery, Shoichet and her team are internationally known for their discovery and innovative use of 3D hydrogels.

“One of the challenges facing drug screening is that many of the drugs discovered work well in the lab, but not in people, and a possible explanation for this discrepancy is that these drugs are discovered in environments that do not reflect that of the body,” explains Shoichet.

Shoichet’s team has invented a series of biomaterials that provide a soft, three-dimensional environment in which to grow cells. These hydrogels — water-swollen materials — better mimic human tissue than hard two-dimensional plastic dishes that are typically used. “Now we can do more predictive drug screening,” says Shoichet.

Her lab is using these biomaterials to discover drugs for breast and brain cancer and a rare lung disease. Shoichet’s lab has been equally innovative in regenerative medicine strategies to promote repair of the brain after stroke and overcome blindness.

“Everything that we do is motivated by answering a question in biology, using our engineering and chemistry tools to answer those questions,” says Shoichet.

“The hope is that our contributions will ultimately make a positive impact in the cancer community and in treating diseases for which we can only slow the progression rather than stop and reverse, such as with blindness.”

Shoichet is also an advocate for and advisor on the fields of science and engineering. She has advised both federal and provincial governments through her service on Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the Ontario Research Innovation Council. From 2014 to 2018, she was the Senior Advisor to the President on Science & Engineering Engagement at the University of Toronto. She is the co-founder of Research2Reality [emphasis mine], which uses social media to promote innovative research across the country. She also served as Ontario’s first Chief Scientist [emphasis mine], with a mandate to advance science and innovation in the province.

Shoichet is the only person to be elected a fellow of all three of Canada’s National Academies and is a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and fellow of the Royal Society (UK) — the oldest and most prestigious academic society.

Doug Ford (premier of Ontario) and Molly Shoichet

She did serve as Ontario’s first Chief Scientist—for about six months (Nov. 2017 – July 2018). Molly Shoichet was fired when a new provincial government was elected in the summer of 2018. Here’s more about the incident from a July 4, 2018 article by Ryan Maloney for huffingtonpost.ca (Note: Links have been removed),

New Ontario Premier Doug Ford has fired the province’s first chief scientist.

Dr. Molly Shoichet, a renowned biomedical engineer who teaches at the University of Toronto, was appointed in November [2017] to advise the government and ensure science and research were at the forefront of decision-making.

Shoichet told HuffPost Canada in an email that the she does not believe the decision was about her, and “I don’t even know whether it was about this role.” She said she is disappointed but honoured to have served Ontarians, even for a short time.

Ford’s spokesman, Simon Jefferies told The Canadian Press Wednesday that the government is starting the process of “finding a suitable and qualified replacement.” [emphasis mine]

The move comes just days after Ford’s Progressive Conservatives officially took power in Canada’s largest province with a majority government.

Almost a year later, there was no replacement in sight according to a June 24, 2019 opinion piece by Kimberly Girling (then the Research and Policy Director of the Evidence for Democracy not-for-profit) for the star.com,

Premier Doug Ford, I’m concerned for your government.

I know you feel it too. Last week, one year into your mandate and faced with sharply declining polls after your first provincial budget, you conducted a major cabinet shuffle. This shuffle is clearly an attempt to “put the right people in the right place at the right time” and improve the outcomes of your cabinet. But I’m still concerned.

Since your election, your caucus has made many bold decisions. Unfortunately, it seems many are Ontarians unhappy with most of these decisions, and I’m not sure the current shuffle is enough to fix this.

[] I think you’re missing someone.

What about a Chief Scientist?

It isn’t a radical idea. Actually, you used to have one. Ontario’s first Chief Scientist, Dr. Molly Shoichet, was appointed to advise the government on science policy and champion science and innovation for Ontario. However, when your government was elected, you fired Dr. Shoichet within the first week.

It’s been a year, and so far we haven’t seen any attempts to fill this vacant position. [emphasis mine]

I wonder if Doug Ford and his crew regret the decision to fire Shoichet especially now that the province is suffering from a new peak in rising COVID-19 case numbers. These days government could do with a little bit of good news.

The only way we might ever know is if Doug Ford writes a memoir (in about 20 or 30 years from now).

Molly Shoichet, Research2Reality, and FrogHeart

A May 11, 2015 posting announced the launch of Research2Reality and it’s in this posting that I have a few comments from Molly Shoichet about co-founding a national science communication project. Given how busy she was at the time, I was amazed she took a few minutes to speak to me and took more time to make it possible for me to interview Raymond Laflamme (then director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo [Ontario]) and a prominent physicist.

Here are the comments Molly Shoichet offered (from the May 11, 2015 posting),

“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.

This is a big undertaking. ” Mike [Mike MacMillan, co-founder] and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,

Five years later, it’s still going.

Finally: Congratulations Molly Shoichet!

How do viruses and physics go together? Find out at a Nov. 4, 2020 Perimeter Institute (PI) virtual lecture

I got this announcement from an Oct. 29, 2020 Perimeter Institute (PI) Emmy Noether newsletter (received via email),

Catherne Beauchemin

A Physicist’s Adventures in Virology WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 4 at 7 pm ET [4 pm PT]

In recent years, there has been a rise in cynicism about many traditionally well-respected institutions – science, academia, news reporting, and even the concepts of experts and expertise more generally. Many people’s primary – or only – exposure to science is through biological or health science, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In health research, rising cynicism has spawned the anti-vaccine movement, and a growing reliance on advice from peer networks rather than experts. In part, such movements are fuelled by several examples of provably false, so-called “scientific results,” coming about either through fraud or incompetence. While skepticism is crucial to science, cynicism rooted in a lack of trust can devalue scientific contributions.

In her lecture webcast, physicist Catherine Beauchemin will explore the erosion of trust in health research, presenting examples from influenza and COVID-19. …

I went to the A Physicist’s Adventures in Virology event and livestrream page to find this,

Two essential ingredients of the scientific method are skepticism and independent confirmation – the ability to glean for oneself whether an established theory or a new hypothesis is true or false. But not everyone has the capacity to perform the experiments to obtain such a confirmation.

Consider, for example, the costs of constructing your own Large Hadron Collider, or your ability as a non-expert to critically read and understand a scientific publication. In practice, acceptance of scientific theories is more often based on trust than on independent confirmation. When that trust is eroded, issues emerge.

Catherine Beauchemin is a Professor of Physics at Ryerson University and a Deputy Program Director in the RIKEN Interdisciplinary Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Program in Japan. For the last 18 years, she has been developing mathematical and computational descriptions of how viruses spread from cell to cell, a field she calls “virophysics.”

In her November 4 [2020] Perimeter Public Lecture webcast, Beauchemin will highlight some of the issues that have eroded trust in health research, presenting examples from influenza and COVID-19. She will show why she believes many of these issues have their root in the fact that hypotheses in health research are formulated as words rather than mathematical expressions – and why a dose of physics may be just the prescription we need.

Enjoy!

Technical University of Munich: embedded ethics approach for AI (artificial intelligence) and storing a tv series in synthetic DNA

I stumbled across two news bits of interest from the Technical University of Munich in one day (Sept. 1, 2020, I think). The topics: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Embedded ethics and artificial intelligence (AI)

An August 27, 2020 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 1, 2020) features information about a proposal to embed ethicists in with AI development teams,

The increasing use of AI (artificial intelligence) in the development of new medical technologies demands greater attention to ethical aspects. An interdisciplinary team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) advocates the integration of ethics from the very beginning of the development process of new technologies. Alena Buyx, Professor of Ethics in Medicine and Health Technologies, explains the embedded ethics approach.

Professor Buyx, the discussions surrounding a greater emphasis on ethics in AI research have greatly intensified in recent years, to the point where one might speak of “ethics hype” …

Prof. Buyx: … and many committees in Germany and around the world such as the German Ethics Council or the EU Commission High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence have responded. They are all in agreement: We need more ethics in the development of AI-based health technologies. But how do things look in practice for engineers and designers? Concrete solutions are still few and far between. In a joint pilot project with two Integrative Research Centers at TUM, the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence (MSRM) with its director, Prof. Sami Haddadin, and the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), with Prof. Ruth Müller, we want to try out the embedded ethics approach. We published the proposal in Nature Machine Intelligence at the end of July [2020].

What exactly is meant by the “embedded ethics approach”?

Prof.Buyx: The idea is to make ethics an integral part of the research process by integrating ethicists into the AI development team from day one. For example, they attend team meetings on a regular basis and create a sort of “ethical awareness” for certain issues. They also raise and analyze specific ethical and social issues.

Is there an example of this concept in practice?

Prof. Buyx: The Geriatronics Research Center, a flagship project of the MSRM in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is developing robot assistants to enable people to live independently in old age. The center’s initiatives will include the construction of model apartments designed to try out residential concepts where seniors share their living space with robots. At a joint meeting with the participating engineers, it was noted that the idea of using an open concept layout everywhere in the units – with few doors or individual rooms – would give the robots considerable range of motion. With the seniors, however, this living concept could prove upsetting because they are used to having private spaces. At the outset, the engineers had not given explicit consideration to this aspect.

Prof.Buyx: The approach sounds promising. But how can we avoid “embedded ethics” from turning into an “ethics washing” exercise, offering companies a comforting sense of “being on the safe side” when developing new AI technologies?

That’s not something we can be certain of avoiding. The key is mutual openness and a willingness to listen, with the goal of finding a common language – and subsequently being prepared to effectively implement the ethical aspects. At TUM we are ideally positioned to achieve this. Prof. Sami Haddadin, the director of the MSRM, is also a member of the EU High-Level Group of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, he is guided by the concept of human centered engineering. Consequently, he has supported the idea of embedded ethics from the very beginning. But one thing is certain: Embedded ethics alone will not suddenly make AI “turn ethical”. Ultimately, that will require laws, codes of conduct and possibly state incentives.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper espousing the embedded ethics for AI development approach,

An embedded ethics approach for AI development by Stuart McLennan, Amelia Fiske, Leo Anthony Celi, Ruth Müller, Jan Harder, Konstantin Ritt, Sami Haddadin & Alena Buyx. Nature Machine Intelligence (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-0214-1 Published 31 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Religion, ethics and and AI

For some reason embedded ethics and AI got me to thinking about Pope Francis and other religious leaders.

The Roman Catholic Church and AI

There was a recent announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will be working with MicroSoft and IBM on AI and ethics (from a February 28, 2020 article by Jen Copestake for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online (Note: A link has been removed),

Leaders from the two tech giants met senior church officials in Rome, and agreed to collaborate on “human-centred” ways of designing AI.

Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted some people may “think of us as strange bedfellows” at the signing event.

“But I think the world needs people from different places to come together,” he said.

The call was supported by Pope Francis, in his first detailed remarks about the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity.

The Rome Call for Ethics [sic] was co-signed by Mr Smith, IBM executive vice-president John Kelly and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

It puts humans at the centre of new technologies, asking for AI to be designed with a focus on the good of the environment and “our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants”.

Framing the current era as a “renAIssance”, the speakers said the invention of artificial intelligence would be as significant to human development as the invention of the printing press or combustion engine.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization director Qu Dongyu and Italy’s technology minister Paola Pisano were also co-signatories.

Hannah Brockhaus’s February 28, 2020 article for the Catholic News Agency provides some details missing from the BBC report and I found it quite helpful when trying to understand the various pieces that make up this initiative,

The Pontifical Academy for Life signed Friday [February 28, 2020], alongside presidents of IBM and Microsoft, a call for ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence technologies.

According to the document, “the sponsors of the call express their desire to work together, in this context and at a national and international level, to promote ‘algor-ethics.’”

“Algor-ethics,” according to the text, is the ethical use of artificial intelligence according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

The signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics [PDF]” took place as part of the 2020 assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was held Feb. 26-28 [2020] on the theme of artificial intelligence.

One part of the assembly was dedicated to private meetings of the academics of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The second was a workshop on AI and ethics that drew 356 participants from 41 countries.

On the morning of Feb. 28 [2020], a public event took place called “renAIssance. For a Humanistic Artificial Intelligence” and included the signing of the AI document by Microsoft President Brad Smith, and IBM Executive Vice-president John Kelly III.

The Director General of FAO, Dongyu Qu, and politician Paola Pisano, representing the Italian government, also signed.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, was also present Feb. 28.

Pope Francis canceled his scheduled appearance at the event due to feeling unwell. His prepared remarks were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy for Life.

You can find Pope Francis’s comments about the document here (if you’re not comfortable reading Italian, hopefully, the English translation which follows directly afterward will be helpful). The Pope’s AI initiative has a dedicated website, Rome Call for AI ethics, and while most of the material dates from the February 2020 announcement, they are keeping up a blog. It has two entries, one dated in May 2020 and another in September 2020.

Buddhism and AI

The Dalai Lama is well known for having an interest in science and having hosted scientists for various dialogues. So, I was able to track down a November 10, 2016 article by Ariel Conn for the futureoflife.org website, which features his insights on the matter,

The question of what it means and what it takes to feel needed is an important problem for ethicists and philosophers, but it may be just as important for AI researchers to consider. The Dalai Lama argues that lack of meaning and purpose in one’s work increases frustration and dissatisfaction among even those who are gainfully employed.

“The problem,” says the Dalai Lama, “is … the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. … Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”

If feeling needed and feeling useful are necessary for happiness, then AI researchers may face a conundrum. Many researchers hope that job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation could, in the end, provide people with more leisure time to pursue enjoyable activities. But if the key to happiness is feeling useful and needed, then a society without work could be just as emotionally challenging as today’s career-based societies, and possibly worse.

I also found a talk on the topic by The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, first here’s a description from his bio at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values webspace on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website,

… an innovative thinker, philosopher, educator and a polymath monk. He is Director of the Ethics Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and President & CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Venerable Tenzin’s unusual background encompasses entering a Buddhist monastery at the age of ten and receiving graduate education at Harvard University with degrees ranging from Philosophy to Physics to International Relations. He is a Tribeca Disruptive Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Venerable Tenzin serves on the boards of a number of academic, humanitarian, and religious organizations. He is the recipient of several recognitions and awards and received Harvard’s Distinguished Alumni Honors for his visionary contributions to humanity.

He gave the 2018 Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society at Stanford University on the topic, “Religious and Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence.” The video runs over one hour but he is a sprightly speaker (in comparison to other Buddhist speakers I’ve listened to over the years).

Judaism, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths examine AI and ethics

I was delighted to find this January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event as it brought together a range of thinkers from various faiths and disciplines,

New technologies are transforming our world every day, and the pace of change is only accelerating.  In coming years, human beings will create machines capable of out-thinking us and potentially taking on such uniquely-human traits as empathy, ethical reasoning, perhaps even consciousness.  This will have profound implications for virtually every human activity, as well as the meaning we impart to life and creation themselves.  This conference will provide an introduction for non-specialists to Artificial Intelligence (AI):

What is it?  What can it do and be used for?  And what will be its implications for choice and free will; economics and worklife; surveillance economies and surveillance states; the changing nature of facts and truth; and the comparative intelligence and capabilities of humans and machines in the future? 

Leading practitioners, ethicists and theologians will provide cross-disciplinary and cross-denominational perspectives on such challenges as technology addiction, inherent biases and resulting inequalities, the ethics of creating destructive technologies and of turning decision-making over to machines from self-driving cars to “autonomous weapons” systems in warfare, and how we should treat the suffering of “feeling” machines.  The conference ultimately will address how we think about our place in the universe and what this means for both religious thought and theological institutions themselves.

UTS [Union Theological Seminary] is the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship.  JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism and a major center for academic scholarship in Jewish studies. The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation that has served as a focal point of global and national activism for peace and social justice since its inception and continues to serve God through word and public witness. The annual Greater Good Gathering, the following week at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, focuses on how technology is changing society, politics and the economy – part of a growing nationwide effort to advance conversations promoting the “greater good.”

They have embedded a video of the event (it runs a little over seven hours) on the January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event page. For anyone who finds that a daunting amount of information, you may want to check out the speaker list for ideas about who might be writing and thinking on this topic.

As for Islam, I did track down this November 29, 2018 article by Shahino Mah Abdullah, a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia,

As the global community continues to work together on the ethics of AI, there are still vast opportunities to offer ethical inputs, including the ethical principles based on Islamic teachings.

This is in line with Islam’s encouragement for its believers to convey beneficial messages, including to share its ethical principles with society.

In Islam, ethics or akhlak (virtuous character traits) in Arabic, is sometimes employed interchangeably in the Arabic language with adab, which means the manner, attitude, behaviour, and etiquette of putting things in their proper places. Islamic ethics cover all the legal concepts ranging from syariah (Islamic law), fiqh ( jurisprudence), qanun (ordinance), and ‘urf (customary practices).

Adopting and applying moral values based on the Islamic ethical concept or applied Islamic ethics could be a way to address various issues in today’s societies.

At the same time, this approach is in line with the higher objectives of syariah (maqasid alsyariah) that is aimed at conserving human benefit by the protection of human values, including faith (hifz al-din), life (hifz alnafs), lineage (hifz al-nasl), intellect (hifz al-‘aql), and property (hifz al-mal). This approach could be very helpful to address contemporary issues, including those related to the rise of AI and intelligent robots.

..

Part of the difficulty with tracking down more about AI, ethics, and various religions is linguistic. I simply don’t have the language skills to search for the commentaries and, even in English, I may not have the best or most appropriate search terms.

Television (TV) episodes stored on DNA?

According to a Sept. 1, 2020 news item on Nanowerk, the first episode of a tv series, ‘Biohackers’ has been stored on synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by a researcher at TUM and colleagues at another institution,

The first episode of the newly released series “Biohackers” was stored in the form of synthetic DNA. This was made possible by the research of Prof. Reinhard Heckel of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and his colleague Prof. Robert Grass of ETH Zürich.

They have developed a method that permits the stable storage of large quantities of data on DNA for over 1000 years.

A Sept. 1, 2020 TUM press release, which originated the news item, proceeds with more detail in an interview format,

Prof. Heckel, Biohackers is about a medical student seeking revenge on a professor with a dark past – and the manipulation of DNA with biotechnology tools. You were commissioned to store the series on DNA. How does that work?

First, I should mention that what we’re talking about is artificially generated – in other words, synthetic – DNA. DNA consists of four building blocks: the nucleotides adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Computer data, meanwhile, are coded as zeros and ones. The first episode of Biohackers consists of a sequence of around 600 million zeros and ones. To code the sequence 01 01 11 00 in DNA, for example, we decide which number combinations will correspond to which letters. For example: 00 is A, 01 is C, 10 is G and 11 is T. Our example then produces the DNA sequence CCTA. Using this principle of DNA data storage, we have stored the first episode of the series on DNA.

And to view the series – is it just a matter of “reverse translation” of the letters?

In a very simplified sense, you can visualize it like that. When writing, storing and reading the DNA, however, errors occur. If these errors are not corrected, the data stored on the DNA will be lost. To solve the problem, I have developed an algorithm based on channel coding. This method involves correcting errors that take place during information transfers. The underlying idea is to add redundancy to the data. Think of language: When we read or hear a word with missing or incorrect letters, the computing power of our brain is still capable of understanding the word. The algorithm follows the same principle: It encodes the data with sufficient redundancy to ensure that even highly inaccurate data can be restored later.

Channel coding is used in many fields, including in telecommunications. What challenges did you face when developing your solution?

The first challenge was to create an algorithm specifically geared to the errors that occur in DNA. The second one was to make the algorithm so efficient that the largest possible quantities of data can be stored on the smallest possible quantity of DNA, so that only the absolutely necessary amount of redundancy is added. We demonstrated that our algorithm is optimized in that sense.

DNA data storage is very expensive because of the complexity of DNA production as well as the reading process. What makes DNA an attractive storage medium despite these challenges?

First, DNA has a very high information density. This permits the storage of enormous data volumes in a minimal space. In the case of the TV series, we stored “only” 100 megabytes on a picogram – or a billionth of a gram of DNA. Theoretically, however, it would be possible to store up to 200 exabytes on one gram of DNA. And DNA lasts a long time. By comparison: If you never turned on your PC or wrote data to the hard disk it contains, the data would disappear after a couple of years. By contrast, DNA can remain stable for many thousands of years if it is packed right.

And the method you have developed also makes the DNA strands durable – practically indestructible.

My colleague Robert Grass was the first to develop a process for the “stable packing” of DNA strands by encapsulating them in nanometer-scale spheres made of silica glass. This ensures that the DNA is protected against mechanical influences. In a joint paper in 2015, we presented the first robust DNA data storage concept with our algorithm and the encapsulation process developed by Prof. Grass. Since then we have continuously improved our method. In our most recent publication in Nature Protocols of January 2020, we passed on what we have learned.

What are your next steps? Does data storage on DNA have a future?

We’re working on a way to make DNA data storage cheaper and faster. “Biohackers” was a milestone en route to commercialization. But we still have a long way to go. If this technology proves successful, big things will be possible. Entire libraries, all movies, photos, music and knowledge of every kind – provided it can be represented in the form of data – could be stored on DNA and would thus be available to humanity for eternity.

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

Reading and writing digital data in DNA by Linda C. Meiser, Philipp L. Antkowiak, Julian Koch, Weida D. Chen, A. Xavier Kohll, Wendelin J. Stark, Reinhard Heckel & Robert N. Grass. Nature Protocols volume 15, pages86–101(2020) Issue Date: January 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-019-0244-5 Published [online] 29 November 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for ‘Biohackers’, it’s a German science fiction television series and you can find out more about it here on the Internet Movie Database.

“Eat up your ceramic nanoparticles” says the European Space Agency

A Sept. 4, 2020 news item on phys.org showcases some intriguing research from the European Space Agency (ESA),

“Eat your vitamins” might be replaced with “ingest your ceramic nano-particles” in the future as space research is giving more weight to the idea that nanoscopic particles could help protect cells from common causes of damage.

A Sept, 4, 2020 ESA press release, which originated the news item, fills in some of the details and raises a question,

Oxidative stress occurs in our bodies when cells lose the natural balance of electrons in the molecules that we are made of. This is a common and constant occurrence that is part of our metabolism but also plays a role in the aging process and several pathological conditions, such as heart failure, muscle atrophy and Parkinson’s disease.

The best advice for keeping your body in balance and avoiding oxidative stress is still to have a healthy diet and eat enough vitamins, but nanoparticles are showing promising results in keeping cells in shape.

When in space, astronauts have been shown to suffer from more oxidative stress due to the extra radiation they receive and as a by-product of floating in weightlessness, so researchers in Italy were keen to see if nanoparticles would have the same protective effect on cells on the International Space Station as on Earth.

They prepared muscle cells that flew to the International Space Station and were cultured in ESA’s Kubik incubator before being frozen for storage.

A year ago [emphasis mine] our frozen samples splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on the Dragon spacecraft, and after comparing the samples we saw a marked effect in the cells treated with ceramic nanoparticles,” says Gianni Ciofani from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy. “The effect we observed seems to imply that nanoparticles work better and longer than traditional antioxidants such as vitamins.”

“The experiment setup resulted in excellent samples to analyze using state-of-the art RNA sequencing,” continues Gianni. “Conducting space research is nothing like traditional lab work, as we have less samples, we cannot do the work ourselves and we have to work around deadlines such as launch days, landing and storing the samples, it is challenging but thrilling research!” The team even found ways to improve and simplify the process for future studies.

Baby astronauts hypothesis

The research adds weight to the baby-astronaut hypothesis of weightlessness. The changes in muscle tissue observed are similar to how babies’ tissues develop in the womb.

“Some researchers see similarities to how human bodies adapt to living in space with pre-natal conditions: there are similarities with floating in a warm environment with different oxygen intake and we consider it a possibility of return to the state,” says Giada Genchi, also of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia’s Smart Bio-Interfaces department.

The team’s high-quality muscle tissue samples are being further analyzed and compared to samples from similar experiments that flew earlier. There is still much more to learn, such as what is the best way to administer nano-ceramics and how long do their protective effects last as well as possible unwanted side effects.

I highlighted a “A year ago” because that should mean 2019 but the research the ESA press release linked to was published in 2018. I cannot find anything more recent. So, for the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the 2018 research paper,

Modulation of gene expression in rat muscle cells following treatment with nanoceria in different gravity regimes by Giada Graziana Genchi, Andrea Degl’Innocenti, Alice Rita Salgarella, Ilaria Pezzini, Attilio Marino, Arianna Menciassi, Sara Piccirillo, Michele Balsamo & Gianni Ciofani. Nanomedicine Vol. 13, No. 22 Preliminary Communication DOI: https://doi.org/10.2217/nnm-2018-0316 Published Online: 18 Oct 2018 Print Version: 2018 Nov;13 (22): 2821-2833. DOI: 10.2217/nnm-2018-0316.

The paper is behind a paywall.

This image was used to illustrate the work,

Courtesy Nanomedicine (journal)

Regardless of when the research was published, it’s still pretty interesting work and I hope to hear more about it in the future.

Spinning gold out of nanocellulose

If you’re hoping for a Rumpelstiltskin reference (there is more about the fairy tale at the end of this posting) and despite the press release’s headline, you won’t find it in this August 10, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

When nanocellulose is combined with various types of metal nanoparticles, materials are formed with many new and exciting properties. They may be antibacterial, change colour under pressure, or convert light to heat.

“To put it simply, we make gold from nanocellulose”, says Daniel Aili, associate professor in the Division of Biophysics and Bioengineering at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University.

The research group, led by Daniel Aili, has used a biosynthetic nanocellulose produced by bacteria and originally developed for wound care. The scientists have subsequently decorated the cellulose with metal nanoparticles, principally silver and gold. The particles, no larger than a few billionths of a metre, are first tailored to give them the properties desired, and then combined with the nanocellulose.

An August 10, 2020 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,expands on a few details about the work (sob … without mentioning Rumpelstiltskin),

“Nanocellulose consists of thin threads of cellulose, with a diameter approximately one thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. The threads act as a three-dimensional scaffold for the metal particles. When the particles attach themselves to the cellulose, a material that consists of a network of particles and cellulose forms”, Daniel Aili explains.

The researchers can determine with high precision how many particles will attach, and their identities. They can also mix particles of different metals and with different shapes – spherical, elliptical and triangular.

In the first part of a scientific article published in Advanced Functional Materials, the group describes the process and explains why it works as it does. The second part focusses on several areas of application.

One exciting phenomenon is the way in which the properties of the material change when pressure is applied. Optical phenomena arise when the particles approach each other and interact, and the material changes colour. As the pressure increases, the material eventually appears to be gold.

“We saw that the material changed colour when we picked it up in tweezers, and at first we couldn’t understand why”, says Daniel Aili.

The scientists have named the phenomenon “the mechanoplasmonic effect”, and it has turned out to be very useful. A closely related application is in sensors, since it is possible to read the sensor with the naked eye. An example: If a protein sticks to the material, it no longer changes colour when placed under pressure. If the protein is a marker for a particular disease, the failure to change colour can be used in diagnosis. If the material changes colour, the marker protein is not present.

Another interesting phenomenon is displayed by a variant of the material that absorbs light from a much broader spectrum visible light and generates heat. This property can be used for both energy-based applications and in medicine.

“Our method makes it possible to manufacture composites of nanocellulose and metal nanoparticles that are soft and biocompatible materials for optical, catalytic, electrical and biomedical applications. Since the material is self-assembling, we can produce complex materials with completely new well-defined properties,” Daniel Aili concludes.

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

Self‐Assembly of Mechanoplasmonic Bacterial Cellulose–Metal Nanoparticle Composites by Olof Eskilson, Stefan B. Lindström, Borja Sepulveda, Mohammad M. Shahjamali, Pau Güell‐Grau, Petter Sivlér, Mårten Skog, Christopher Aronsson, Emma M. Björk, Niklas Nyberg, Hazem Khalaf, Torbjörn Bengtsson, Jeemol James, Marica B. Ericson, Erik Martinsson, Robert Selegård, Daniel Aili. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202004766 First published: 09 August 2020

This paper is open access.

As for Rumpelstiltskin, there’s this abut the story’s origins and its cross-cultural occurrence, from its Wikipedia entry,

“Rumpelstiltskin” (/ˌrʌmpəlˈstɪltskɪn/ RUMP-əl-STILT-skin[1]) is a fairy tale popularly associated with Germany (where it is known as Rumpelstilzchen). The tale was one collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 1812 edition of Children’s and Household Tales. According to researchers at Durham University and the NOVA University Lisbon, the story originated around 4,000 years ago.[2][3] However, many biases led some to take the results of this study with caution.[4]

The same story pattern appears in numerous other cultures: Tom Tit Tot in England (from English Fairy Tales, 1890, by Joseph Jacobs); The Lazy Beauty and her Aunts in Ireland (from The Fireside Stories of Ireland, 1870 by Patrick Kennedy); Whuppity Stoorie in Scotland (from Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1826); Gilitrutt in Iceland; جعيدان (Joaidane “He who talks too much”) in Arabic; Хламушка (Khlamushka “Junker”) in Russia; Rumplcimprcampr, Rampelník or Martin Zvonek in the Czech Republic; Martinko Klingáč in Slovakia; “Cvilidreta” in Croatia; Ruidoquedito (“Little noise”) in South America; Pancimanci in Hungary (from A Csodafurulya, 1955, by Emil Kolozsvári Grandpierre, based on the 19th century folktale collection by László Arany); Daiku to Oniroku (大工と鬼六 “A carpenter and the ogre”) in Japan and Myrmidon in France.

An earlier literary variant in French was penned by Mme. L’Héritier, titled Ricdin-Ricdon.[5] A version of it exists in the compilation Le Cabinet des Fées, Vol. XII. pp. 125-131.

The Cornish tale of Duffy and the Devil plays out an essentially similar plot featuring a “devil” named Terry-top.

All these tales are Aarne–Thompson type 500, “The Name of the Helper”.[6]

Should you be curious about the story as told by the Brothers Grimm, here’s the beginning to get you started (from the grimmstories.com Rumpelstiltskin webpage),

There was once a miller who was poor, but he had one beautiful daughter. It happened one day that he came to speak with the king, and, to give himself consequence, he told him that he had a daughter who could spin gold out of straw. The king said to the miller: “That is an art that pleases me well; if thy daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to my castle to-morrow, that I may put her to the proof.”

When the girl was brought to him, he led her into a room that was quite full of straw, and gave her a wheel and spindle, and said: “Now set to work, and if by the early morning thou hast not spun this straw to gold thou shalt die.” And he shut the door himself, and left her there alone. And so the poor miller’s daughter was left there sitting, and could not think what to do for her life: she had no notion how to set to work to spin gold from straw, and her distress grew so great that she began to weep. Then all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, who said: “Good evening, miller’s daughter; why are you crying?”

Enjoy! BTW, should you care to, you can find three other postings here tagged with ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. I think turning dross into gold is a popular theme in applied science.

New nanotubes discovered in the eye

I was half-expecting to read about some sort of fancy carbon nanotubes—I was wrong. From an August 12, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily where the researchers keep the mystery going for a while,

A new mechanism of blood redistribution that is essential for the proper functioning of the adult retina has just been discovered in vivo by researchers at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM).

“For the first time, we have identified a communication structure between cells that is required to coordinate blood supply in the living retina,” said Dr. Adriana Di Polo, a neuroscience professor at Université de Montréal and holder of a Canada Research Chair in glaucoma and age-related neurodegeneration, who supervised the study.

“We already knew that activated retinal areas receive more blood than non-activated ones,” she said, “but until now no one understood how this essential blood delivery was finely regulated.”

The study was conducted on mice by two members of Di Polo’s lab: Dr. Luis Alarcon-Martinez, a postdoctoral fellow, and Deborah Villafranca-Baughman, a PhD student. Both are the first co-authors of this study.

In living animals, as in humans, the retina uses the oxygen and nutrients contained in the blood to fully function. This vital exchange takes place through capillaries, the thinnest blood vessels in all organs of the body. When the blood supply is dramatically reduced or cut off — such as in ischemia or stroke — the retina does not receive the oxygen it needs. In this condition, the cells begin to die and the retina stops working as it should.

An August 12, 2020 University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM) news release on EurekAlert clears up the mystery,

Tunnelling between cells

Wrapped around the capillaries are pericytes, cells that have the ability to control the amount of blood passing through a single capillary simply by squeezing and releasing it.

“Using a microscopy technique to visualize vascular changes in living mice, we showed that pericytes project very thin tubes, called inter-pericyte tunnelling nanotubes, [emphasis mine] to communicate with other pericytes located in distant capillaries,” said Alarcon-Martinez. “Through these nanotubes, the pericytes can talk to each other to deliver blood where it is most needed.”

Another important feature, added Villafranca-Baughman, is that “the capillaries lose their ability to shuttle blood where it is required when the tunnelling nanotubes are damaged–after an ischemic stroke, for example. The lack of blood supply that follows has a detrimental effect on neurons and the overall tissue function.”

The team’s findings suggest that microvascular deficits observed in neurodegenerative diseases like strokes, glaucoma, and Alzheimer’s disease might result from the loss of tunnelling nanotubes and impaired blood distribution. Strategies that protect these nanostructures should then be beneficial, but remain to be demonstrated.

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

Interpericyte tunnelling nanotubes regulate neurovascular coupling by Luis Alarcon-Martinez, Deborah Villafranca-Baughman, Heberto Quintero, J. Benjamin Kacerovsky, Florence Dotigny, Keith K. Murai, Alexandre Prat, Pierre Drapeau & Adriana Di Polo. Nature (2020) Published: 12 August 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2589-x

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spotting the difference between dengue and Zika infections with gold nanosensors

This July 29, 2020 news item on Nanowerk features research from Brazil,

A new class of nanosensor developed in Brazil could more accurately identify dengue and Zika infections, a task that is complicated by their genetic similarities and which can result in misdiagnosis.

The technique uses gold nanoparticles and can “observe” viruses at the atomic level, according to a study published in Scientific Reports (“Nanosensors based on LSPR are able to serologically differentiate dengue from Zika infections”).

Belonging to the Flavivirus genus in the Flaviviridae family, Zika and dengue viruses share more than 50 per cent similarity in their amino acid sequence. Both viruses are spread by mosquitos and can have long-term side effects. The Flaviviridae virus family was named after the yellow fever virus and comes from the Latin word for golden, or yellow, in colour.

“Diagnosing [dengue virus] infections is a high priority in countries affected by annual epidemics of dengue fever. The correct diagnostic is essential for patient managing and prognostic as there are no specific antiviral drugs to treat the infection,” the authors say.

More than 1.8 million people are suspected to have been infected with dengue so far this year in the Americas, with 4000 severe cases and almost 700 deaths, the Pan American Health Organization says. The annual global average is estimated to be between 100 million and 400 million dengue infections, according to the World Health Organization.

Flávio Fonseca, study co-author and researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, tells SciDev.Net it is almost impossible to differentiate between dengue and Zika viruses.

“A serologic test that detects antibodies against dengue also captures Zika-generated antibodies. We call it cross-reactivity,” he says.

Meghie Rodrigues’ July 29, 2020 article for SciDev.net, which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

Co-author and virologist, Maurício Nogueira, tells SciDev.Net that avoiding cross-reactivity is crucial because “dengue is a disease that kills — and can do so quickly if the right diagnosis is not made. As for Zika, it offers risks for foetuses to develop microcephaly, and we can’t let pregnant women spend seven or eight months wondering whether they have the virus or not.”

There is also no specific antiviral treatment for Zika and the search for a vaccine is ongoing.

Virus differentiation is important to accurately measure the real impact of both diseases on public health. The most widely used blood test, the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), is limited in its ability to tell the difference between the viruses, the authors say.

As dengue has four variations, known as serotypes, the team created four different nanoparticles and covered each of them with a different dengue protein. They applied ELISA serum and a blood sample. The researchers found that sample antibodies bound with the viruses’ proteins, changing the pattern of electrons on the gold nanoparticle surface.

Should you check out Rodrigues’ entire article, you might want to take some time to explore SciDev.net to find science news from countries that don’t often get the coverage they should.

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

Nanosensors based on LSPR are able to serologically differentiate dengue from Zika infections by Alice F. Versiani, Estefânia M. N. Martins, Lidia M. Andrade, Laura Cox, Glauco C. Pereira, Edel F. Barbosa-Stancioli, Mauricio L. Nogueira, Luiz O. Ladeira & Flávio G. da Fonseca. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 11302 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-68357-9 Published: 09 July 2020

This paper is open access.

7th annual Vancouver Nanomedicine Day, Sept. 17, 2020

Like so many events these days (COVID-19 days), this event put on by Canada’s NanoMedicines Innovation Network (NMIN) will be held virtually. Here’s more from the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020 event page on the NMIN website,

This world-class symposium, the sixth event of its kind, will bring together a record number (1000+) of renowned Canadian and international experts from across the nanomedicines field to:

  • highlight the discoveries and innovations in nanomedicines that are contributing to global progress in acute, chronic and orphan disease treatment and management;
  • present up-to-date diagnostic and therapeutic  nanomedicine approaches to addressing the challenges of COVID-19; and
  • facilitate discussion among nanomedicine researchers and innovators and UBC and NMIN clinician-scientists, basic researchers, trainees, and research partners.

Since 2014, Vancouver Nanomedicine Day has advanced nanomedicine research, knowledge mobilization and commercialization in Canada by sharing high-impact findings and facilitating interaction—among researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and life science and startup biotechnology companies—to catalyze research collaboration.

Here are a few highlights from the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020 event page,

  • An introduction to nanomedicines by Dr. Emmanuel Ho (University of Waterloo)
  • A keynote address by an iconic nanomedicine innovator: Dr. Robert Langer (MIT, Department of Chemical Engineering)
  • Invited talks by internationally renowned experts, including Dr. Vito Foderà (The University of Copenhagen, Denmark); Dr. Lucia Gemma Delogu (University of Padova, Italy); and Dr. Christine Allen (University of Toronto)
  • A virtual poster competition, with cash prizes for the top posters
  • A debate on whether “nanomedicines are still the next big thing” between Marcel Bally (proponent) and Kishor Wasan (opponent)

You can get the Program in PDF.

Registration is free. But you must Register.

Here’s the event poster,

[downloaded from https://www.nanomedicines.ca/nmd-2020/]

I have a few observations, First, Robert Langer is a big deal. Here are a few highlights from his Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Robert Samuel Langer, Jr. FREng[2] (born August 29, 1948) is an American chemical engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, inventor and one of the twelve Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[3]

Langer holds over 1,350 granted or pending patents.[3][29] He is one of the world’s most highly cited researchers, having authored nearly 1,500 scientific papers, and has participated in the founding of multiple technology companies.[30][31]

Langer is the youngest person in history (at 43) to be elected to all three American science academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He was also elected as a charter member of National Academy of Inventors.[32] He was elected as an International Fellow[2] of the Royal Academy of Engineering[2] in 2010.

It’s all about commercializing the research—or is it?

(This second observation is a little more complicated and requires a little context.) The NMIN is one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence (who thought that name up? …sigh), from the NMIN About page,

NMIN is funded by the Government of Canada through the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) Program.

The NCEs seem to be firmly fixed on finding pathways to commercialization (from the NCE About page) Note: All is not as it seems,

Canada’s global economic competitiveness [emphasis mine] depends on making new discoveries and transforming them into products, services [emphasis mine] and processes that improve the lives of Canadians. To meet this challenge, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) offers a suite of programs that mobilize Canada’s best research, development and entrepreneurial [emphasis mine] expertise and focus it on specific issues and strategic areas.

NCE programs meet Canada’s needs to focus a critical mass of research resources on social and economic challenges, commercialize [emphasis mine] and apply more of its homegrown research breakthroughs, increase private-sector R&D, [emphasis mine] and train highly qualified people. As economic [emphasis mine] and social needs change, programs have evolved to address new challenges.

Interestingly, the NCE is being phased out,

As per the December 2018 NCE Program news, funding for the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) Program will be gradually transferred to the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).

The new agency, NFRF, appears to have a completely different mandate, from the NFRF page on the Canada Research Coordinating Committee webspace,

The Canada Research Coordinating Committee designed the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) following a comprehensive national consultation, which involved Canadian researchers, research administrators, stakeholders and the public. NFRF is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which is housed within the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), on behalf of Canada’s three research granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and SSHRC.

The fund will invest $275 million over the next 5 years beginning in fiscal 2018-19, and $65 million ongoing, to fund international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research.

NFRF is composed of three streams to support groundbreaking research.

  • Exploration generates opportunities for Canada to build strength in high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research;
  • Transformation provides large-scale support for Canada to build strength and leadership in interdisciplinary and transformative research; and
  • International enhances opportunities for Canadian researchers to participate in research with international partners.

As you can see there’s no reference to commercialization or economic challenges.

Personally

Here at last is the second observation, I find it hard to believe that the government of Canada has given up on the idea of commercializing research and increasing the country’s economic competitiveness through research. Certainly, Langer’s virtual appearance at Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020, suggests that at least some corners of the Canadian research establishment are remaining staunchly entrepreneurial.

After all, the only Canadian government ministry with science in its name is this one: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), as of Sept. 11, 2020.. (The other ‘science’ ministries are Natural Resources Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.) ISED is not exactly subtle. Intriguingly the latest review on the state of science and technology in Canada was released on April 10, 2018 (from the April 10, 2018 Council of Canadian Academies CCA] news release),

Canada remains strong in research output and impact, capacity for R&D and innovation at risk: New expert panel report

While Canada is a highly innovative country, with a robust research base and thriving communities of technology start-ups, significant barriers—such as a lack of managerial skills, the experience needed to scale-up companies, and foreign acquisition of high-tech firms—often prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation.[emphasis mine] The result is a deficit of technology companies growing to scale in Canada, and a loss of associated economic and social benefits.This risks establishing a vicious cycle, where successful companies seek growth opportunities elsewhere due to a lack of critical skills and experience in Canada guiding companies through periods of rapid expansion.

According to the CCA’s [2018 report] Summary webpage, it was Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada which requested the report. (I wrote up a two-part commentary under one of my favourite titles: “The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.” Part 1 and Part 2)

I will be fascinated to watch the NFRF and science commercialization situations as they develop.

In the meantime, you can sign up for free to attend the ‘Virtual’ Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020.

Optical fibers made from marine algae

Apparently after you’ve finished imaging with your marine algae-based optical fibers, you can eat them. A July 24, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces the new research,

An optical fiber made of agar has been produced at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. This device is edible, biocompatible and biodegradable. It can be used in vivo for body structure imaging, localized light delivery in phototherapy or optogenetics (e.g., stimulating neurons with light to study neural circuits in a living brain), and localized drug delivery.

Another possible application is the detection of microorganisms in specific organs, in which case the probe would be completely absorbed by the body after performing its function.

Caption: Edible, biocompatible and biodegradable, these fibers have potential for various medical applications. Credit: Eric Fujiwara

A July 24, 2020 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa dFundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) do Estado de São Paulo press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a few more details about the researches and the work,

The research project, which was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation – FAPESP, was led by Eric Fujiwara, a professor in UNICAMP’s School of Mechanical Engineering, and Cristiano Cordeiro, a professor in UNICAMP’s Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics, in collaboration with Hiromasa Oku, a professor at Gunma University in Japan.

An article on the study is published) in Scientific Reports, an online journal owned by Springer Nature.

Agar, also called agar-agar, is a natural gelatin obtained from marine algae. Its composition consists of a mixture of two polysaccharides, agarose and agaropectin. “Our optical fiber is an agar cylinder with an external diameter of 2.5 millimeters [mm] and a regular inner arrangement of six 0.5 mm cylindrical airholes around a solid core. Light is confined owing to the difference between the refraction indices of the agar core and the airholes,” Fujiwara told.

“To produce the fiber, we poured food-grade agar into a mold with six internal rods placed lengthwise around the main axis,” he continued. “The gel distributes itself to fill the available space. After cooling, the rods are removed to form airholes, and the solidified waveguide is released from the mold. The refraction index and geometry of the fiber can be adapted by varying the composition of the agar solution and mold design, respectively.”

The researchers tested the fiber in different media, from air and water to ethanol and acetone, concluding that it is context-sensitive. “The fact that the gel undergoes structural changes in response to variations in temperature, humidity and pH makes the fiber suitable for optical sensing,” Fujiwara said.

Another promising application is its simultaneous use as an optical sensor and a growth medium for microorganisms. “In this case, the waveguide can be designed as a disposable sample unit containing the necessary nutrients. The immobilized cells in the device would be optically sensed, and the signal would be analyzed using a camera or spectrometer,” he said.

###

About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. You can learn more about FAPESP at http://www.fapesp.br/en and visit FAPESP news agency at http://www.agencia.fapesp.br/en to keep updated with the latest scientific breakthroughs FAPESP helps achieve through its many programs, awards and research centers. You may also subscribe to FAPESP news agency at http://agencia.fapesp.br/subscribe.

As per my usual practice, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Agarose-based structured optical fibre by Eric Fujiwara, Thiago D. Cabral, Miko Sato, Hiromasa Oku & Cristiano M. B. Cordeiro. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 7035 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64103-3 Published: 27 April 2020

This paper is open access.

Should you have a problem accessing the English language version of the FAPESP website, the Portuguese language version of the site seems more accessible (assuming you have the language skills).