Category Archives: health and safety

Printing wearable circuits onto skin

It seems that this new technique for creating wearable electronics will be more like getting a permanent tattoo where the circuits are applied directly to your skin as opposed to being like a temporary tattoo where the circuits are printed onto a substrate and then applied to then, worn on your skin.

Caption: On-body sensors, such as electrodes and temperature sensors, were directly printed and sintered on the skin surface. Credit: Adapted from ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acsami.0c11479

An Oct. 14, 2020 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert) announced this latest development in wearable electronics,

Wearable electronics are getting smaller, more comfortable and increasingly capable of interfacing with the human body. To achieve a truly seamless integration, electronics could someday be printed directly on people’s skin. As a step toward this goal, researchers reporting in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces have safely placed wearable circuits directly onto the surface of human skin to monitor health indicators, such as temperature, blood oxygen, heart rate and blood pressure.

The latest generation of wearable electronics for health monitoring combines soft on-body sensors with flexible printed circuit boards (FPCBs) for signal readout and wireless transmission to health care workers. However, before the sensor is attached to the body, it must be printed or lithographed onto a carrier material, which can involve sophisticated fabrication approaches. To simplify the process and improve the performance of the devices, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, Huanyu Cheng and colleagues wanted to develop a room-temperature method to sinter metal nanoparticles onto paper or fabric for FPCBs and directly onto human skin for on-body sensors. Sintering — the process of fusing metal or other particles together — usually requires heat, which wouldn’t be suitable for attaching circuits directly to skin.

The researchers designed an electronic health monitoring system that consisted of sensor circuits printed directly on the back of a human hand, as well as a paper-based FPCB attached to the inside of a shirt sleeve. To make the FPCB part of the system, the researchers coated a piece of paper with a novel sintering aid and used an inkjet printer with silver nanoparticle ink to print circuits onto the coating. As solvent evaporated from the ink, the silver nanoparticles sintered at room temperature to form circuits. A commercially available chip was added to wirelessly transmit the data, and the resulting FPCB was attached to a volunteer’s sleeve. The team used the same process to sinter circuits on the volunteer’s hand, except printing was done with a polymer stamp. As a proof of concept, the researchers made a full electronic health monitoring system that sensed temperature, humidity, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and electrophysiological signals and analyzed its performance. The signals obtained by these sensors were comparable to or better than those measured by conventional commercial devices. 

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

Wearable Circuits Sintered at Room Temperature Directly on the Skin Surface for Health Monitoring by Ling Zhang, Hongjun Ji, Houbing Huang, Ning Yi, Xiaoming Shi, Senpei Xie, Yaoyin Li, Ziheng Ye, Pengdong Feng, Tiesong Lin, Xiangli Liu, Xuesong Leng, Mingyu Li, Jiaheng Zhang, Xing Ma, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, and Huanyu Cheng. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2020, 12, 40, 45504–45515 Publication Date:September 11, 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.0c11479 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Could synergistic action of engineered nanoparticles have a health impact?

Synergistic action can be difficult to study especially when you’re looking at nanoparticles which could be naturally occurring and/or engineered. I believe this study is focused on engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) and I think it’s the first one I’ve seen that examines synergistic action of any kind. So, bravo to the scientists for tackling a very ambitious project.

An October 1, 2020 news item on phys.org describes this work from Denmark,

Nanoparticles are used in a wide range of products and manufacturing processes because the properties of a material can change dramatically when the material comes in nano-form.

They can be used, for example, to purify wastewater and to transport medicine around the body. They are also added to, for example, socks, pillows, mattresses, phone covers and refrigerators to supply the items with an antibacterial surface.

Much research has been done on how nanoparticles affect humans and the environment and a number of studies have shown that nanoparticles can disrupt or damage our cells.

This is confirmed by a new study that has also looked at how cells react when exposed to more than one kind of nano particle at the same time.

An October 1, 2020 University of Southern Denmark press release (also on EurekAlert) by Birgitte Svennevig, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

The lead author of the study is Barbara Korzeniowska from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at SDU. The head of research is Professor Frank Kjeldsen from the same department.

His research into metal nanoparticles is supported by a European Research Grant of DKK 14 million.

“Throughout a lifetime, we are exposed to many different kinds of nano-particles, and we should investigate how the combination of different nano-particles affects us and also whether an accumulation through life can harm us,” says Barbara Korzeniowska.

She herself became interested in the subject when her little daughter one day was going in the bathtub and got a rubber duck as a toy.

– It turned out that it had been treated with nano-silver, probably to keep it free of bacteria, but small children put their toys in their mouths, and she could thus ingest nano-silver. That is highly worrying when research shows that nano-silver can damage human cells, she says.

In her new study, she looked at nano-silver and nano-platinum. She has investigated their individual effect and whether exposure of both types of nanoparticles results in a synergy effect in two types of brain cells.

– There are almost no studies of the synergy effect of nano particles, so it is important to get started with these studies, she says.

She chose nano-silver because it is already known to be able to damage cells and nano-platinum, because nano-platinum is considered to be so-called bio-inert; i.e. has a minimal interaction with human tissue.

The nanoparticles were tested on two types of brain cells: astrocytes and endothelial cells. Astrocytes are supporter cells in the central nervous system, which i.a. helps to supply the nervous system with nutrients and repair damage to the brain. Endothelial cells sit on the inside of the blood vessels and transport substances from the bloodstream to the brain.

When the endothelial cells were exposed to nano-platinum, nothing happened. When exposed to nano-silver, their ability to divide deteriorated. When exposed to both nano-silver and nano-platinum, the effect was amplified, and they died in large numbers. Furthermore, their defense mechanisms decreased, and they had difficulty communicating with each other.

– So even though nano-platinum alone does not do harm, something drastic happens when they are combined with a different kind of nano-particle, says Frank Kjeldsen.

The astrocytes were more hardy and reacted “only” with impaired ability to divide when exposed to both types of nano-particles.

An earlier study, conducted by Frank Kjeldsen, has shown a dramatic synergy effect of silver nanoparticles and cadmium ions, which are found naturally all around us on Earth.

In that study, 72 % of the cells died (in this study it was intestinal cells) as they were exposed to both nano-silver and cadmium ions. When they were only exposed to nano-silver, 25% died. When exposed to cadmium ions only, 12% died.

We are involuntarily exposed

– Little is known about how large concentrations of nano-particles are used in industrial products. We also do not know what size particles they use – size also has an effect on whether they can enter a cell, says Barbara Korzeniowska and continues:

– But we know that a lot of people are involuntarily exposed to nano-particles, and that there can be lifelong exposure.

There are virtually no restrictions on adding nanoparticles to products. In the EU, however, manufacturers must have an approval if they want to use nanoparticles in products with antibacterial properties. In Denmark, they must also declare nano-content in such products on the label.

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

The Cytotoxicity of Metal Nanoparticles Depends on Their Synergistic Interactions by Barbara Korzeniowska, Micaella P. Fonseca, Vladimir Gorshkov, Lilian Skytte, Kaare L. Rasmussen, Henrik D. Schrøder, Frank Kjeldsen. Particle Volume 37, Issue 8, August 2020,. 2000135 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppsc.202000135 First published: 06 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Can tattoos warn you of health dangers?

I think I can safely say that Carson J. Bruns, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an electronic tattoo enthusiast. His Sept. 24, 2020 essay on electronic tattoos for The Conversation (also found on Fast Company) outlines a very rosy view of a future where health monitoring is constant and visible on your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

In the sci-fi novel “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, body art has evolved into “constantly shifting mediatronic tattoos” – in-skin displays powered by nanotech robopigments. In the 25 years since the novel was published, nanotechnology has had time to catch up, and the sci-fi vision of dynamic tattoos is starting to become a reality.

The first examples of color-changing nanotech tattoos have been developed over the past few years, and they’re not just for body art. They have a biomedical purpose. Imagine a tattoo that alerts you to a health problem signaled by a change in your biochemistry, or to radiation exposure that could be dangerous to your health.

You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and get a dynamic tattoo yet, but they are on the way. …

In 2017, researchers tattooed pigskin, which had been removed from the pig, with molecular biosensors that use color to indicate sodium, glucose or pH levels in the skin’s fluids.

In 2019, a team of researchers expanded on that study to include protein sensing and developed smartphone readouts for the tattoos. This year, they also showed that electrolyte levels could be detected with fluorescent tattoo sensors.

In 2018, a team of biologists developed a tattoo made of engineered skin cells that darken when they sense an imbalance of calcium caused by certain cancers. They demonstrated the cancer-detecting tattoo in living mice.

My lab is looking at tech tattoos from a different angle. We are interested in sensing external harms, such as ultraviolet radiation. UV exposure in sunlight and tanning beds is the main risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common malignancies in the U.S., Australia and Europe.

I served as the first human test subject for these tattoos. I created “solar freckles” on my forearm – invisible spots that turned blue under UV exposure and reminded me when to wear sunscreen. My lab is also working on invisible UV-protective tattoos that would absorb UV light penetrating through the skin, like a long-lasting sunscreen just below the surface. We’re also working on “thermometer” tattoos using temperature-sensitive inks. Ultimately, we believe tattoo inks could be used to prevent and diagnose disease.

Temporary transfer tattoos are also undergoing a high-tech revolution. Wearable electronic tattoos that can sense electrophysiological signals like heart rate and brain activity or monitor hydration and glucose levels from sweat are under development. They can even be used for controlling mobile devices, for example shuffling a music playlist at the touch of a tattoo, or for luminescent body art that lights up the skin.

The advantage of these wearable tattoos is that they can use battery-powered electronics. The disadvantage is that they are much less permanent and comfortable than traditional tattoos. Likewise, electronic devices that go underneath the skin are being developed by scientists, designers and biohackers alike, but they require invasive surgical procedures for implantation.

Tattoos injected into the skin offer the best of both worlds: minimally invasive, yet permanent and comfortable. [emphasis mine] New needle-free tattooing methods that fire microscopic ink droplets into the skin are now in development. Once perfected they will make tattooing quicker and less painful.

The color-changing tattoos in development are also going to open the door to a new kind of dynamic body art. Now that tattoo colors can be changed by an electromagnetic signal, you’ll soon be able to “program” your tattoo’s design, or switch it on and off. You can proudly display your neck tattoo at the motorcycle rally and still have clear skin in the courtroom.

As researchers develop dynamic tattoos, they’ll need to study the safety [emphasis mine] of the high-tech inks. As it is, little is known about the safety of the more than 100 different pigments used in normal tattoo inks [emphasis mine]. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not exercised regulatory authority over tattoo pigments, citing other competing public health priorities and a lack of evidence of safety problems with the pigments. So U.S. manufacturers can put whatever they want in tattoo inks [emphasis mine] and sell them without FDA approval.

A wave of high-tech tattoos is slowly upwelling, and it will probably keep rising for the foreseeable future. When it arrives, you can decide to surf or watch from the beach. If you do climb on board, you’ll be able to check your body temperature or UV exposure by simply glancing at one of your tattoos.

There are definitely some interesting possibilities, artistic, health, and medical, offered by electronic tattoos. As you may have guessed, I’m not quite the enthusiast that Dr. Bruns seems to be but I could be persuaded, assuming there’s evidence to support the claims.

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and its anti-bacterial graphene face masks

This looks like interesting work and I think the integration of visual images and embedded video in the news release (on the university website) is particularly well done. I won’t be including all the graphical information here as my focus is the text.

A Sept. 10, 2020 City University of Hong Kong (CityU) press release (also on EurekAlert) announces a greener, more effective face mask,

Face masks have become an important tool in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, improper use or disposal of masks may lead to “secondary transmission”. A research team from City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has successfully produced graphene masks with an anti-bacterial efficiency of 80%, which can be enhanced to almost 100% with exposure to sunlight for around 10 minutes. Initial tests also showed very promising results in the deactivation of two species of coronaviruses. The graphene masks are easily produced at low cost, and can help to resolve the problems of sourcing raw materials and disposing of non-biodegradable masks.

The research is conducted by Dr Ye Ruquan, Assistant Professor from CityU’s Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with other researchers. The findings were published in the scientific journal ACS Nano, titled “Self-Reporting and Photothermally Enhanced Rapid Bacterial Killing on a Laser-Induced Graphene Mask“.

Commonly used surgical masks are not anti-bacterial. This may lead to the risk of secondary transmission of bacterial infection when people touch the contaminated surfaces of the used masks or discard them improperly. Moreover, the melt-blown fabrics used as a bacterial filter poses an impact on the environment as they are difficult to decompose. Therefore, scientists have been looking for alternative materials to make masks.

Converting other materials into graphene by laser

Dr Ye has been studying the use of laser-induced graphene [emphasis mine] in developing sustainable energy. When he was studying PhD degree at Rice University several years ago, the research team he participated in and led by his supervisor discovered an easy way to produce graphene. They found that direct writing on carbon-containing polyimide films (a polymeric plastic material with high thermal stability) using a commercial CO2 infrared laser system can generate 3D porous graphene. The laser changes the structure of the raw material and hence generates graphene. That’s why it is named laser-induced graphene.

Graphene is known for its anti-bacterial properties, so as early as last September, before the outbreak of COVID-19, producing outperforming masks with laser-induced graphene already came across Dr Ye’s mind. He then kick-started the study in collaboration with researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Nankai University, and other organisations.

Excellent anti-bacterial efficiency

The research team tested their laser-induced graphene with E. coli, and it achieved high anti-bacterial efficiency of about 82%. In comparison, the anti-bacterial efficiency of activated carbon fibre and melt-blown fabrics, both commonly-used materials in masks, were only 2% and 9% respectively. Experiment results also showed that over 90% of the E. coli deposited on them remained alive even after 8 hours, while most of the E. coli deposited on the graphene surface were dead after 8 hours. Moreover, the laser-induced graphene showed a superior anti-bacterial capacity for aerosolised bacteria.

Dr Ye said that more research on the exact mechanism of graphene’s bacteria-killing property is needed. But he believed it might be related to the damage of bacterial cell membranes by graphene’s sharp edge. And the bacteria may be killed by dehydration induced by the hydrophobic (water-repelling) property of graphene.

Previous studies suggested that COVID-19 would lose its infectivity at high temperatures. So the team carried out experiments to test if the graphene’s photothermal effect (producing heat after absorbing light) can enhance the anti-bacterial effect. The results showed that the anti-bacterial efficiency of the graphene material could be improved to 99.998% within 10 minutes under sunlight, while activated carbon fibre and melt-blown fabrics only showed an efficiency of 67% and 85% respectively.

The team is currently working with laboratories in mainland China to test the graphene material with two species of human coronaviruses. Initial tests showed that it inactivated over 90% of the virus in five minutes and almost 100% in 10 minutes under sunlight. The team plans to conduct testings with the COVID-19 virus later.

Their next step is to further enhance the anti-virus efficiency and develop a reusable strategy for the mask. They hope to release it to the market shortly after designing an optimal structure for the mask and obtaining the certifications.

Dr Ye described the production of laser-induced graphene as a “green technique”. All carbon-containing materials, such as cellulose or paper, can be converted into graphene using this technique. And the conversion can be carried out under ambient conditions without using chemicals other than the raw materials, nor causing pollution. And the energy consumption is low.

“Laser-induced graphene masks are reusable. If biomaterials are used for producing graphene, it can help to resolve the problem of sourcing raw material for masks. And it can lessen the environmental impact caused by the non-biodegradable disposable masks,” he added.

Dr Ye pointed out that producing laser-induced graphene is easy. Within just one and a half minutes, an area of 100 cm² can be converted into graphene as the outer or inner layer of the mask. Depending on the raw materials for producing the graphene, the price of the laser-induced graphene mask is expected to be between that of surgical mask and N95 mask. He added that by adjusting laser power, the size of the pores of the graphene material can be modified so that the breathability would be similar to surgical masks.

A new way to check the condition of the mask

To facilitate users to check whether graphene masks are still in good condition after being used for a period of time, the team fabricated a hygroelectric generator. It is powered by electricity generated from the moisture in human breath. By measuring the change in the moisture-induced voltage when the user breathes through a graphene mask, it provides an indicator of the condition of the mask. Experiment results showed that the more the bacteria and atmospheric particles accumulated on the surface of the mask, the lower the voltage resulted. “The standard of how frequently a mask should be changed is better to be decided by the professionals. Yet, this method we used may serve as a reference,” suggested Dr Ye.

Laser-induced graphene (LIG), Rice University, and Dr. Ye were mentioned here in a May 9, 2018 titled: Do you want that coffee with some graphene on toast?

Back to the latest research, read the caption carefully,

Research shows that over 90% of the E. coli deposited on activated carbon fibre (fig c and d) and melt-blown fabrics (fig e and f) remained alive even after 8 hours. In contrast, most of the E. coli deposited on the graphene surface (fig a and b) were dead. (Photo source: DOI number: 10.1021/acsnano.0c05330)

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

Self-Reporting and Photothermally Enhanced Rapid Bacterial Killing on a Laser-Induced Graphene Mask by Libei Huang, Siyu Xu, Zhaoyu Wang, Ke Xue, Jianjun Su, Yun Song, Sijie Chen, Chunlei Zhu, Ben Zhong Tang, and Ruquan Ye. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 9, 12045–12053 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c05330 Publication Date:August 11, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

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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.

You mean Fitbit makes mistakes? More accuracy with ‘drawn-on-skin’ electronics

A July 30, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces news about more accurate health monitoring with electronics applied directly to your skin,

A team of researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston, has developed a new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics,” allowing multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen.

The advance, the researchers report in Nature Communications, allows for the collection of more precise, motion artifact-free health data, solving the long-standing problem of collecting precise biological data through a wearable device when the subject is in motion.

The imprecision may not be important when your FitBit registers 4,000 steps instead of 4,200, but sensors designed to check heart function, temperature and other physical signals must be accurate if they are to be used for diagnostics and treatment.

A July 30, 2020 University of Houston news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, goes on to explain why you might want to have electronics ‘drawn on your skin’,

The drawn-on-skin electronics are able to seamlessly collect data, regardless of the wearer’s movements.  

They also offer other advantages, including simple fabrication techniques that don’t require dedicated equipment.

“It is applied like you would use a pen to write on a piece of paper,” said Yu. “We prepare several electronic materials and then use pens to dispense them. Coming out, it is liquid. But like ink on paper, it dries very quickly.”

Wearable bioelectronics – in the form of soft, flexible patches attached to the skin – have become an important way to monitor, prevent and treat illness and injury by tracking physiological information from the wearer. But even the most flexible wearables are limited by motion artifacts, or the difficulty that arises in collecting data when the sensor doesn’t move precisely with the skin.

The drawn-on-skin electronics can be customized to collect different types of information, and Yu said it is expected to be especially useful in situations where it’s not possible to access sophisticated equipment, including on a battleground.

The electronics are able to track muscle signals, heart rate, temperature and skin hydration, among other physical data, he said. The researchers also reported that the drawn-on-skin electronics have demonstrated the ability to accelerate healing of wounds.

In addition to Yu, researchers involved in the project include Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang and Peng Wang, all from the University of Houston, and Jiping Yue and Xiaoyang Wu from the University of Chicago.

The drawn-on-skin electronics are actually comprised of three inks, serving as a conductor, semiconductor and dielectric.

“Electronic inks, including conductors, semiconductors, and dielectrics, are drawn on-demand in a freeform manner to develop devices, such as transistors, strain sensors, temperature sensors, heaters, skin hydration sensors, and electrophysiological sensors,” the researchers wrote.

This research is supported by the Office of Naval Research and National Institutes of Health.

Caption: A new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics” allows multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen. Credit: University of Houston

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

Ultra-conformal drawn-on-skin electronics for multifunctional motion artifact-free sensing and point-of-care treatment by Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Jiping Yue, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang, Peng Wang, Xiaoyang Wu & Cunjiang Yu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3823 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17619-1

This paper is open access.

Nanoparticles and the gut health of major living species of animals

A July 27, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into gut health described as seminal (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of scientists has completed the first ever study into the potential impact of naturally occurring and man-made nanoparticles on the health of all types of the major living species of animals.

Conceived by researchers at the University of Plymouth, as part of the EU [European Union] Nanofase project, the study assessed how the guts of species from honey bees to humans could protect against the bioaccumulation and toxicological effects of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) found within the environment.

A July 27, 2020 University of Plymouth press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It showed that the digestive systems of many species have evolved to act as a barrier guarding against the absorption of potentially damaging particles.

However, invertebrates such as earthworms also have roving cells within their guts, which can take up ENMs and transfer them to the gut wall.

This represents an additional risk for many invertebrate species where the particles can be absorbed via these roving cells, with consequent effects on internal organs having the potential to cause lasting damage.

Fortunately, this process is not replicated in humans and other vertebrate animals, however there is still the potential for nanomaterials to have a negative impact through the food chain.

The study, published in the July [2020] edition of Environmental Science: Nano, involved scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Portugal and focused on particles measuring up to 100 nanometres (around 1/10 millionth of a metre).

It combined existing and new research into species including insects and other invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals, as well as identifying knowledge gaps on reptiles and amphibians. The study provides the first comprehensive overview of how differences in gut structure can affect the impact of ENMs across the animal kingdom.

Richard Handy, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Plymouth and the study’s senior author, said:

“This is a seminal piece work that combines nearly 100 years of zoology research with our current understanding of nanotechnology.

“The threats posed by engineered nanomaterials are becoming better known, but this study provides the first comprehensive and species-level assessment of how they might pose current and future threats. It should set the foundations for understanding the dietary hazard in the animal kingdom.”

Nanomaterials come in three forms – naturally occurring, incidentally occurring from human activities, and deliberately manufactured – and their use has increased exponentially in the last decade.

They have consistently found new applications in a wide variety of industrial sectors, including electrical appliances, medicines, cleaning products and textiles.

Professor Handy, who has advised organisations including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, added:

“Nanoparticles are far too small for the human eye to see but that doesn’t mean they cannot cause harm to living species. The review element of this study has shown they have actually been written about for many decades, but it is only recently that we have begun to understand the various ways they occur and now the extent to which they can be taken up. Our new EU project, NanoHarmony, looks to build on that knowledge and we are currently working with Public Health England and others to expand our method for detecting nanomaterials in tissues for food safety and other public health matters.”

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

The gut barrier and the fate of engineered nanomaterials: a view from comparative physiology by Meike van der Zande, Anita Jemec Kokalj, David J. Spurgeon, Susana Loureiro, Patrícia V. Silva, Zahra Khodaparast, Damjana Drobne, Nathaniel J. Clark, Nico W. van den Brink, Marta Baccaro, Cornelis A. M. van Gestel, Hans Bouwmeester and Richard D. Handy. Environmental Science: Nano, Issue 7 (July 2020) DOI: 10.1039/D0EN00174K First published 27 Apr 2020

This article is open access.

If you’re curious about Nanofase (Nanomaterial FAte and Speciation in the Environment), there’s more here and there’s more about NanoHarmony here.

Arc’teryx performance apparel and University of British Columbia (Canada) scientists stay green and dry

As rainy season approaches in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the US, there’s some good news about a sustainable water- and oil-repellent fabric. Sadly, it won’t be available this year but it’s something to look forward to.

An August 10, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news from the University of British Columbia (UBC) about a greener, water-repellent fabric,

A sustainable, non-toxic and high-performance water-repellent fabric has long been the holy grail of outdoor enthusiasts and clothing companies alike. New research from UBC Okanagan and outdoor apparel giant Arc’teryx is making that goal one step closer to reality with one of the world’s first non-toxic oil and water-repellent performance textile finishes.

An August 10, 2020 UBC Okanagan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Outdoor fabrics are typically treated with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) to repel oil and water. But according to Sadaf Shabanian, doctoral student at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering and study lead author, PFCs come with a number of problems.

“PFCs have long been the standard for stain repellents, from clothing to non-stick frying pans, but we know these chemicals have a detrimental impact on human health and the environment,” explains Shabanian. “They pose a persistent, long-term risk to health and the environment because they take hundreds of years to breakdown and linger both in the environment and our bodies.”

According to Mary Glasper, materials developer at Arc’teryx and collaborator on the project, these lasting impacts are one of the major motivations for clothing companies to seek out new methods to achieve the same or better repellent properties in their products.

To solve the problem, Shabanian and the research team added a nanoscopic layer of silicone to each fibre in a woven fabric, creating an oil-repellent jacket fabric that repels water, sweat and oils.

By understanding how the textile weave and fibre roughness affect the liquid interactions, Shabanian says she was able to design a fabric finish that did not use any PFCs.

“The best part of the new design is that the fabric finish can be made from biodegradable materials and can be recyclable,” she says. “It addresses many of the issues related to PFC-based repellent products and remains highly suitable for the kind of technical apparel consumers and manufacturers are looking for.”

Arc’teryx is excited about the potential of this solution.

“An oil- and water-repellent finish that doesn’t rely on PFCs is enormously important in the world of textiles and is something the whole outdoor apparel industry has been working on for years,” says Glasper. “Now that we have a proof-of-concept, we’ll look to expand its application to other DWR-treated textiles used in our products and to improve the durability of the treatment.”

“Working to lessen material impacts on the environment is crucial for Arc’teryx to meet our goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent in intensity by 2030,” she adds.

Kevin Golovin, principal investigator of the Okanagan Polymer Engineering Research & Applications Lab where the research was done, says the new research is important because it opens up a new area of green textile manufacturing.

He explains that while the new technology has immense potential, there are still several more years of development and testing needed before people will see fabrics with this treatment in stores.

“Demonstrating oil repellency without the use of PFCs is a critical first step towards a truly sustainable fabric finish,” says Golovin. “And it’s something previously thought impossible.”

The research is funded through a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), with support from Arc’teryx Equipment Inc.

Arc’teryx is based in North Vancouver (Canada).

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

Rational design of perfluorocarbon-free oleophobic textiles by Sadaf Shabanian, Behrooz Khatir, Ambreen Nisar & Kevin Golovin. Nature Sustainability (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0591-9 Published: 10 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold nanoparticles make a new promise: a non-invasive COVID-19 breathalyser

I believe that swab they stick up your nose to test for COVDI-19 is 10 inches long so it seems to me that discomfort or unpleasant are not the words that best describe the testing experience .

Hopefully, no one will have to find inadequate vocabulary for this new COVID-19 testing assuming that future trials are successful and they are able to put the technology into production. From an August 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

Few people who have undergone nasopharyngeal swabs for coronavirus testing would describe it as a pleasant experience. The procedure involves sticking a long swab up the nose to collect a sample from the back of the nose and throat, which is then analyzed for SARS-CoV-2 RNA [ribonucleic acid] by the reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).

Now, researchers reporting in [American Chemical Society] ACS Nano (“Multiplexed Nanomaterial-Based Sensor Array for Detection of COVID-19 in Exhaled Breath”) have developed a prototype device that non-invasively detected COVID-19 in the exhaled breath of infected patients.

An August 19, 2020 ACS news release (also received via email and on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

In addition to being uncomfortable, the current gold standard for COVID-19 testing requires RT-PCR, a time-consuming laboratory procedure. Because of backlogs, obtaining a result can take several days. To reduce transmission and mortality rates, healthcare systems need quick, inexpensive and easy-to-use tests. Hossam Haick, Hu Liu, Yueyin Pan and colleagues wanted to develop a nanomaterial-based sensor that could detect COVID-19 in exhaled breath, similar to a breathalyzer test for alcohol intoxication. Previous studies have shown that viruses and the cells they infect emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be exhaled in the breath.

The researchers made an array of gold nanoparticles linked to molecules that are sensitive to various VOCs. When VOCs interact with the molecules on a nanoparticle, the electrical resistance changes. The researchers trained the sensor to detect COVID-19 by using machine learning to compare the pattern of electrical resistance signals obtained from the breath of 49 confirmed COVID-19 patients with those from 58 healthy controls and 33 non-COVID lung infection patients in Wuhan, China. Each study participant blew into the device for 2-3 seconds from a distance of 1¬-2 cm. Once machine learning identified a potential COVID-19 signature, the team tested the accuracy of the device on a subset of participants. In the test set, the device showed 76% accuracy in distinguishing COVID-19 cases from controls and 95% accuracy in discriminating COVID-19 cases from lung infections. The sensor could also distinguish, with 88% accuracy, between sick and recovered COVID-19 patients. Although the test needs to be validated in more patients, it could be useful for screening large populations to determine which individuals need further testing, the researchers say.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

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

Multiplexed Nanomaterial-Based Sensor Array for Detection of COVID-19 in Exhaled Breath by Benjie Shan, Yoav Y Broza, Wenjuan Li, Yong Wang, Sihan Wu, Zhengzheng Liu, Jiong Wang, Shuyu Gui, Lin Wang, Zhihong Zhang, Wei Liu, Shoubing Zhou, Wei Jin, Qianyu Zhang, Dandan Hu, Lin Lin, Qiujun Zhang, Wenyu Li, Jinquan Wang, Hu Liu, Yueyin Pan, and Hossam Haick. ACS Nano 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c05657 Publication Date:August 18, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Metallic nanoparticles inside heart tissue mitochondria can cause damage

With all the focus on COVID-19, viruses , and aerosols, it’s easy to forget that there are other kinds of contaminated air too. The last time I featured work on nanoparticles and air pollution was in a May 31, 2017 posting, “Explaining the link between air pollution and heart disease?” where scientists announced they may have discovered how air pollution (nanoparticles) were making their way from lungs to the heart. Answer: the bloodstream.

A July 3, 2020 Lancaster University press release (also on EurekAlert) announces research into how air made toxic by metallic nanoparticles affects the heart in very specific ways (Note: A link has been removed),

Toxic metallic air pollution nanoparticles are getting inside the crucial, energy-producing structures within the hearts of people living in polluted cities, causing cardiac stress – a new study confirms.

The research team, led by Professors Barbara Maher of Lancaster University and Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas of The University of Montana and the Universidad del Valle de Mexico, found the metallic nanoparticles, which included iron-rich nanoparticles and other pollution-derived metals such as titanium, inside the damaged heart cells of a 26-year-old and even a three-year-old toddler.

The hearts had belonged to people who had died in accidents and who had lived in highly-polluted Mexico City.

The findings shed new light on how air pollution can cause the development of heart disease, as the iron-rich particles were associated with damage to the cells, and increased cardiac oxidative stress, even in these very young hearts.

The repeated inhalation of these iron-rich nanoparticles, and their circulation by the bloodstream to the heart, may account for the well-established associations between exposure to particulate air pollution and increased cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. The study indicates that heart disease can start in very early age, before progressing to full-blown cardiovascular illness later in life. This type of air pollution may thus be responsible for the ‘silent epidemic’ of heart disease, internationally. By causing pre-existing heart conditions, it may also account for some of the increased death rates from Covid-19 seen in areas with high levels of particulate air pollution.

Professor Maher said: “It’s been known for a long time that people with high exposure to particulate air pollution experience increased levels and severity of heart disease. Our new work shows that iron-rich nanoparticles from air pollution can get right inside the millions of mitochondria inside our hearts…the structures which generate the energy needed for our hearts to pump properly.

“That we found these metal particles inside the heart of even a three-year old indicates that we’re setting heart disease in train right from the earliest days, but only seeing its full, clinical effects in later life. It’s really urgent to reduce emissions of ultrafine particles from our vehicles and from industry, before we give heart disease to the next generation too.”

The researchers, using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray analysis, found that the mitochondria containing the iron-rich nanoparticles appeared to be damaged, with some cells showing deformities and others with ruptured membranes. Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas stated that increased levels of markers of cardiac oxidative stress are present in the very young cases examined.

The iron-rich nanoparticles found inside the heart cells are identical in size, shape and composition to those emitted from sources such as the exhausts, tyres and brakes of vehicles. These air pollution nanoparticles are also emitted by industrial sources as well as open fires in homes.

Some of the iron-rich nanoparticles are also strongly magnetic. This raises concerns about what might happen when people with millions of these nanoparticles in their hearts are using appliances with associated magnetic fields, such as hair dryers and mobile phones. People who work in industries that mean they are exposed to magnetic fields such as welders and power line engineers may also be at risk. This kind of exposure could potentially lead to heart electrical dysfunction and cell damage.

The findings builds on the researchers’ previous findings that show that the hearts of city dwellers contain billions of these nanoparticles and can be up to ten times more polluted than the hearts of people living in less polluted places.

The researchers say their study underlines the need for governments across the world to tackle ultrafine particulate pollution in their cities.

Professor Calderón-Garcidueñas said: “Exposure to such air pollution is a modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, on a global scale, reinforcing the urgent need for individual and government actions not just to reduce PM2.5 but to monitor, regulate and reduce emissions of these specific, ultrafine components of the urban air pollution ‘cocktail’.”

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

Iron-rich air pollution nanoparticles: An unrecognised environmental risk factor for myocardial mitochondrial dysfunction and cardiac oxidative stress by B.A.Maher, A.González-Maciel, R.Reynoso-Robles, R.Torres-Jardón, L.Calderón-Garcidueñas. Environmental Research Volume 188, September 2020, 109816 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109816 Available online 21 June 2020

This paper appears to be open access (just keep scrolling down).