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INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report): 3 of 3

This is the final commentary on the report titled,(INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research). Part 1 of my commentary having provided some introductory material and first thoughts about the report, Part 2 offering more detailed thoughts; this part singles out ‘special cases’, sums up* my thoughts (circling back to ideas introduced in the first part), and offers link to other commentaries.

Special cases

Not all of the science funding in Canada is funneled through the four agencies designed for that purpose, (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) are known collectively as the tri-council funding agencies and are focused on disbursement of research funds received from the federal government. The fourth ‘pillar’ agency, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is focused on funding for infrastructure and, technically speaking, is a 3rd party organization along with MITACS, CANARIE, the Perimeter Institute, and others.

In any event, there are also major research facilities and science initiatives which may receive direct funding from the federal government bypassing the funding agencies and, it would seem, peer review. For example, I featured this in my April 28, 2015 posting about the 2015 federal budget,

The $45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

While the news about the CFI seems to have delighted a number of observers, it should be noted (as per Woodgett’s piece) that the $1.3B is to be paid out over six years ($220M per year, more or less) and the money won’t be disbursed until the 2017/18 fiscal year. As for the $45M designated for TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics), this is exciting news for the lab which seems to have bypassed the usual channels, as it has before, to receive its funding directly from the federal government. [emphases mine]

The Naylor report made this recommendation for Canada’s major research facilities, (MRF)

We heard from many who recommended that the federal government should manage its investments in “Big Science” in a more coordinated manner, with a cradle-to-grave perspective. The Panel agrees. Consistent with NACRI’s overall mandate, it should work closely with the CSA [Chief Science Advisor] in establishing a Standing Committee on Major Research Facilities (MRFs).

CFI defines a national research facility in the following way:

We define a national research facility as one that addresses the needs of a community of Canadian researchers representing a critical mass of users distributed across the country. This is done by providing shared access to substantial and advanced specialized equipment, services, resources, and scientific and technical personnel. The facility supports leading-edge research and technology development, and promotes the mobilization of knowledge and transfer of technology to society. A national research facility requires resource commitments well beyond the capacity of any one institution. A national research facility, whether single-sited, distributed or virtual, is specifically identified or recognized as serving pan-Canadian needs and its governance and management structures reflect this mandate.8

We accept this definition as appropriate for national research facilities to be considered by the Standing Committee on MRFs, but add that the committee should:

• define a capital investment or operating cost level above which such facilities are considered “major” and thus require oversight by this committee (e.g., defined so as to include the national MRFs proposed in Section 6.3: Compute Canada, Canadian Light Source, Canada’s National Design Network, Canadian Research Icebreaker Amundsen, International Vaccine Centre, Ocean Networks Canada, Ocean Tracking Network, and SNOLAB plus the TRIUMF facility); and

• consider international MRFs in which Canada has a significant role, such as astronomical telescopes of global significance.

The structure and function of this Special Standing Committee would closely track the proposal made in 2006 by former NSA [National Science Advisor] Dr Arthur Carty. We return to this topic in Chapter 6. For now, we observe that this approach would involve:

• a peer-reviewed decision on beginning an investment;

• a funded plan for the construction and operation of the facility, with continuing oversight by a peer specialist/agency review group for the specific facility;

• a plan for decommissioning; and

• a regular review scheduled to consider whether the facility still serves current needs.

We suggest that the committee have 10 members, with an eminent scientist as Chair. The members should include the CSA, two representatives from NACRI for liaison, and seven others. The other members should include Canadian and international scientists from a broad range of disciplines and experts on the construction, operation, and administration of MRFs. Consideration should be given to inviting the presidents of NRC [National Research Council of Canada] and CFI to serve as ex-officio members. The committee should be convened by the CSA, have access to the Secretariat associated with the CSA and NACRI, and report regularly to NACRI. (pp. 66-7 print; pp. 100-1 PDF)

I have the impression there’s been some ill feeling over the years regarding some of the major chunks of money given for ‘big science’. At a guess, direct appeals to a federal government that has no official mechanism for assessing the proposed ‘big science’ whether that means a major research facility (e.g., TRIUMF) or major science initiative (e.g., Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy [keep reading to find out how I got the concept of a major science initiative wrong]) or 3rd party (MITACS) has seemed unfair to those who have to submit funding applications and go through vetting processes. This recommendation would seem to be an attempt to redress some of the issues.

Moving onto the third-party delivery and matching programs,

Three bodies in particular are the largest of these third-party organizations and illustrate the challenges of evaluating contribution agreements: Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada. Genome Canada was created in 2000 at a time when many national genomics initiatives were being developed in the wake of the Human Genome Project. It emerged from a “bottom-up” design process driven by genomic scientists to complement existing programs by focusing on large-scale projects and technology platforms. Its funding model emphasized partnerships and matching funds to leverage federal commitments with the objective of rapidly ramping up genomics research in Canada.

This approach has been successful: Genome Canada has received $1.1 billion from the Government of Canada since its creation in 2000, and has raised over $1.6 billion through co-funding commitments, for a total investment in excess of $2.7 billion.34 The scale of Genome Canada’s funding programs allows it to support large-scale genomics research that the granting councils might otherwise not be able to fund. Genome Canada also supports a network of genomics technology and innovation centres with an emphasis on knowledge translation and has built domestic and international strategic partnerships. While its primary focus has been human health, it has also invested extensively in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment, and, more recently, oil and gas and mining— all with a view to the application and commercialization of genomic biotechnology.

Mitacs attracts, trains, and retains HQP [highly qualified personnel] in the Canadian research enterprise. Founded in 1999 as an NCE [Network Centre for Excellence], it was developed at a time when enrolments in graduate programs had flat-lined, and links between mathematics and industry were rare. Independent since 2011, Mitacs has focused on providing industrial research internships and postdoctoral fellowships, branching out beyond mathematics to all disciplines. It has leveraged funding effectively from the federal and provincial governments, industry, and not-for-profit organizations. It has also expanded internationally, providing two-way research mobility. Budget 2015 made Mitacs the single mechanism of federal support for postsecondary research internships with a total federal investment of $135.4 million over the next five years. This led to the wind-down of NSERC’s Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships Program. With matching from multiple other sources, Mitacs’ average annual budget is now $75 to $80 million. The organization aims to more than double the number of internships it funds to 10,000 per year by 2020.35

Finally, Brain Canada was created in 1998 (originally called NeuroScience Canada) to increase the scale of brain research funding in Canada and widen its scope with a view to encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2011 the federal government established the Canada Brain Research Fund to expand Brain Canada’s work, committing $100 million in new public investment for brain research to be matched 1:1 through contributions raised by Brain Canada. According to the STIC ‘State of the Nation’ 2014 report, Canada’s investment in neuroscience research is only about 40 per cent of that in the U.S. after adjusting for the size of the U.S. economy.36 Brain Canada may be filling a void left by declining success rates and flat funding at CIHR.

Recommendation and Elaboration

The Panel noted that, in general, third-party organizations for delivering research funding are particularly effective in leveraging funding from external partners. They fill important gaps in research funding and complement the work of the granting councils and CFI. At the same time, we questioned the overall efficiency of directing federal research funding through third-party organizations, noting that our consultations solicited mixed reactions. Some respondents favoured more overall funding concentrated in the agencies rather than diverting the funding to third-party entities. Others strongly supported the business models of these organizations.

We have indicated elsewhere that a system-wide review panel such as ours is not well-suited to examine these and other organizations subject to third-party agreements. We recommended instead in Chapter 4 that a new oversight body, NACRI, be created to provide expert advice and guidance on when a new entity might reasonably be supported by such an agreement. Here we make the case for enlisting NACRI in determining not just the desirability of initiating a new entity, but also whether contribution agreements should continue and, if so, on what terms.

The preceding sketches of three diverse organizations subject to contribution agreements help illustrate the rationale for this proposal. To underscore the challenges of adjudication, we elaborate briefly. Submissions highlighted that funding from Genome Canada has enabled fundamental discoveries to be made and important knowledge to be disseminated to the Canadian and international research communities. However, other experts suggested a bifurcation with CIHR or NSERC funding research-intensive development of novel technologies, while Genome Canada would focus on application (e.g., large-scale whole genome studies) and commercialization of existing technologies. From the Panel’s standpoint, these observations underscore the subtleties of determining where and how Genome Canada’s mandate overlaps and departs from that of CIHR and NSERC as well as CFI. Added to the complexity of any assessment is Genome Canada’s meaningful role in providing large-scale infrastructure grants and its commercialization program. Mitacs, even more than Genome Canada, bridges beyond academe to the private and non-profit sectors, again highlighting the advantage of having any review overseen by a body with representatives from both spheres. Finally, as did the other two entities, Brain Canada won plaudits, but some interchanges saw discussants ask when and whether it might be more efficient to flow this type of funding on a programmatic basis through CIHR.

We emphasize that the Panel’s intent here is neither to signal agreement nor disagreement with any of these submissions or discussions. We simply wish to highlight that decisions about ongoing funding will involve expert judgments informed by deep expertise in the relevant research areas and, in two of these examples, an ability to bridge from research to innovation and from extramural independent research to the private and non-profit sectors. Under current arrangements, management consulting firms and public servants drive the review and decision-making processes. Our position is that oversight by NACRI and stronger reliance on advice from content experts would be prudent given the sums involved and the nature of the issues. (pp. 102-4 print; pp. 136-8 PDF)

I wasn’t able to find anything other than this about major science initiatives (MSIs),

Big Science facilities, such as MSIs, have had particular challenges in securing ongoing stable operating support. Such facilities often have national or international missions. We termed them “major research facilities” (MRFs) xi in Chapter 4, and proposed an improved oversight mechanism that would provide lifecycle stewardship of these national science resources, starting with the decision to build them in the first instance. (p. 132 print; p. 166 PDF)

So, an MSI is an MRF? (head shaking) Why two terms for the same thing? And, how does the newly announced Pan Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy fit into the grand scheme of things?

The last ‘special case’ I’m featuring is the ‘Programme for Research Chairs for Excellent Scholars and Scientists’. Here’s what the report had to say about the state of affairs,

The major sources of federal funding for researcher salary support are the CRC [Canada Research Chair]and CERC [Canada Excellence Reseach Chair] programs. While some salary support is provided through council-specific programs, these investments have been declining over time. The Panel supports program simplification but, as noted in Chapter 5, we are concerned about the gaps created by the elimination of these personnel awards. While we focus here on the CRC and CERC programs because of their size, profile, and impact, our recommendations will reflect these concerns.

The CRC program was launched in 2000 and remains the Government of Canada’s flagship initiative to keep Canada among the world’s leading countries in higher education R&D. The program has created 2,000 research professorships across Canada with the stated aim “to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”5 as part of an effort to curtail the potential academic brain drain to the U.S. and elsewhere. The program is a tri-council initiative with most Chairs allocated to eligible institutions based on the national proportion of total research grant funding they receive from the three granting councils. The vast majority of Chairs are distributed based on area of research, of which 45 per cent align with NSERC, 35 per cent with CIHR, and 20 per cent with SSHRC; an additional special allocation of 120 Chairs can be used in the area of research chosen by the universities receiving the Chairs. There are two types of Chairs: Tier 1 Chairs are intended for outstanding researchers who are recognized as world leaders in their fields and are renewable; Tier 2 Chairs are targeted at exceptional emerging researchers with the potential to become leaders in their field and can be renewed once. Awards are paid directly to the universities and are valued at $200,000 annually for seven years (Tier 1) or $100,000 annually for five years (Tier 2). The program notes that Tier 2 Chairs are not meant to be a feeder group for Tier 1 Chairs; rather, universities are expected to develop a succession plan for their Tier 2 Chairs.

The CERC program was established in 2008 with the expressed aim of “support[ing] Canadian universities in their efforts to build on Canada’s growing reputation as a global leader in research and innovation.”6 The program aims to award world-renowned researchers and their teams with up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities, making these awards among the most prestigious and generous available internationally. There are currently 27 CERCs with funding available to support up to 30 Chairs, which are awarded in the priority areas established by the federal government. The awards, which are not renewable, require 1:1 matching funds from the host institution, and all degree-granting institutions that receive tri-council funding are eligible to compete. Both the CERC and CRC programs are open to Canadians and foreign citizens. However, until the most recent round, the CERCs have been constrained to the government’s STEM-related priorities; this has limited their availability to scholars and scientists from SSHRC-related disciplines. As well, even though Canadian-based researchers are eligible for CERC awards, the practice has clearly been to use them for international recruitment with every award to date going to researchers from abroad.

Similar to research training support, the funding for salary support to researchers and scholars is a significant proportion of total federal research investments, but relatively small with respect to the research ecosystem as a whole. There are more than 45,000 professors and teaching staff at Canada’s universities7 and a very small fraction hold these awards. Nevertheless, the programs can support research excellence by repatriating top Canadian talent from abroad and by recruiting and retaining top international talent in Canada.

The programs can also lead by example in promoting equity and diversity in the research enterprise. Unfortunately, both the CRC and CERC programs suffer from serious challenges regarding equity and diversity, as described in Chapter 5. Both programs have been criticized in particular for under-recruitment of women.

While the CERC program has recruited exclusively from outside Canada, the CRC program has shown declining performance in that regard. A 2016 evaluation of the CRC program8  observed that a rising number of chairholders were held by nominees who originated from within the host institution (57.5 per cent), and another 14.4 per cent had been recruited from other Canadian institutions. The Panel acknowledges that some of these awards may be important to retaining Canadian talent. However, we were also advised in our consultations that CRCs are being used with some frequency to offset salaries as part of regular faculty complement planning.

The evaluation further found that 28.1 per cent of current chairholders had been recruited from abroad, a decline from 32 per cent in the 2010 evaluation. That decline appears set to continue. The evaluation reported that “foreign nominees accounted, on average, for 13 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of new Tier 1 and Tier 2 nominees over the five-year period 2010 to 2014”, terming it a “large decrease” from 2005 to 2009 when the averages respectively were 32 per cent and 31 per cent. As well, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the attrition rate for chairholders recruited from abroad was 75 per cent higher than for Canadian chairholders, indicating that the program is also falling short in its ability to retain international talent.9

One important factor here appears to be the value of the CRC awards. While they were generous in 2000, their value has remained unchanged for some 17 years, making it increasingly difficult to offer the level of support that world-leading research professors require. The diminishing real value of the awards also means that Chair positions are becoming less distinguishable from regular faculty positions, threatening the program’s relevance and effectiveness. To rejuvenate this program and make it relevant for recruitment and retention of top talent, it seems logical to take two steps:

• ask the granting councils and the Chairs Secretariat to work with universities in developing a plan to restore the effectiveness of these awards; and

• once that plan is approved, increase the award values by 35 per cent, thereby restoring the awards to their original value and making them internationally competitive once again.

In addition, the Panel observes that the original goal was for the program to fund 2,000 Chairs. Due to turnover and delays in filling Chair positions, approximately 10 to 15 per cent of them are unoccupied at any one time.i As a result, the program budget was reduced by $35 million in 2012. However, the occupancy rate has continued to decline since then, with an all-time low of only 1,612 Chair positions (80.6 per cent) filled as of December 2016. The Panel is dismayed by this inefficiency, especially at a time when Tier 2 Chairs remain one of the only external sources of salary support for ECRs [early career researchers]—a group that represents the future of Canadian research and scholarship. (pp. 142-4 print; pp. 176-8 PDF)

I think what you can see as a partial subtext in this report and which I’m attempting to highlight here in ‘special cases’ is a balancing act between supporting a broad range of research inquiries and focusing or pouring huge sums of money into ‘important’ research inquiries for high impact outcomes.

Final comments

There are many things to commend this report including the writing style. The notion that more coordination is needed amongst the various granting agencies, that greater recognition (i.e,, encouragement and funding opportunities) should be given to boundary-crossing research, and that we need to do more interprovincial collaboration is welcome. And yes, they want more money too. (That request is perfectly predictable. When was the last time a report suggested less funding?) Perhaps more tellingly, the request for money is buttressed with a plea to make it partisan-proof. In short, that funding doesn’t keep changing with the political tides.

One area that was not specifically mentioned, except when discussing prizes, was mathematics. I found that a bit surprising given how important the field of mathematics is to  to virtually all the ‘sciences’. A 2013 report, Spotlight on Science, suggests there’s a problem(as noted my Oct. 9, 2013 posting about that report,  (I also mention Canada’s PISA scores [Programme for International Student Assessment] by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], which consistently show Canadian students at the age of 15 [grade 10] do well) ,

… it appears that we have high drop out rates in the sciences and maths, from an Oct. 8, 2013 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website,

… Canadians are paying a heavy price for the fact that less than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students graduate with senior courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at a time when 70 per cent of Canada’s top jobs require an education in those fields, said report released by the science education advocacy group Let’s Talk Science and the pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada.

Spotlight on Science Learning 2013 compiles publicly available information about individual and societal costs of students dropping out STEM courses early.

Even though most provinces only require math and science courses until Grade 10, the report [Spotlight on Science published by Let’s Talk Science and pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada) found students without Grade 12 math could expect to be excluded from 40 to 75 per cent of programs at Canadian universities, and students without Grade 11 could expect to be excluded from half of community college programs. [emphasis mine]

While I realize that education wasn’t the panel’s mandate they do reference the topic  elsewhere and while secondary education is a provincial responsibility there is a direct relationship between it and postsecondary education.

On the lack of imagination front, there was some mention of our aging population but not much planning or discussion about integrating older researchers into the grand scheme of things. It’s all very well to talk about the aging population but shouldn’t we start introducing these ideas into more of our discussions on such topics as research rather than only those discussions focused on aging?

Continuing on with the lack of  imagination and lack of forethought, I was not able to find any mention of independent scholars. The assumption, as always, is that one is affiliated with an institution. Given the ways in which our work world is changing with fewer jobs at the institutional level, it seems the panel was not focused on important and fra reaching trends. Also, there was no mention of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that could affect basic research. One other thing from my wish list, which didn’t get mentioned, art/science or SciArt. Although that really would have been reaching.

Weirdly, one of the topics the panel did note, the pitiifull lack of interprovincial scientific collaboration, was completely ignored when it came time for recommendations.

Should you spot any errors in this commentary, please do drop me a comment.

Other responses to the report:

Nassif Ghoussoub (Piece of Mind blog; he’s a professor mathematics at the University of British Columbia; he attended one of the roundtable discussions held by the panel). As you might expect, he focuses on the money end of things in his May 1, 2017 posting.

You can find a series of essays about the report here under the title Response to Naylor Panel Report ** on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website.

There’s also this May 31, 2017 opinion piece by Jamie Cassels for The Vancouver Sun exhorting us to go forth collaborate internationally, presumably with added funding for the University of Victoria of which Cassels is the president and vice-chancellor. He seems not to have noticed that Canadian do much more poorly with interprovincial collaboration.

*ETA June 21, 2017: I’ve just stumbled across Ivan Semeniuk’s April 10, 2017 analysis (Globe and Mail newspaper) of the report. It’s substantive and well worth checking out.*

Again, here’s a link to the other parts:

INVESTING IN CANADA’S FUTURE; Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research (Review of fundamental research final report) Commentaries

Part 1

Part 2

*’up’ added on June 8, 2017 at 15:10 hours PDT.

**’Science Funding Review Panel Repor’t was changed to ‘Responses to Naylor Panel Report’ on June 22, 2017.

Recycling apples to regenerate bone and cartilage tissue

A March 30, 2017 news item on phys.org announces research utilizing apple waste as a matrix for regenerating bones and cartilage,

Researchers from UPM and CSIC [both organizations are in Spain] have employed waste from the agri-food industry to develop biomaterials that act as matrices to regenerate bone and cartilage tissues, which is of great interest for the treatment of diseases related to aging.

The researchers have produced biocompatible materials from apple pomace resulting from juice production. These materials can be used as 3-D matrices for the regeneration of bone and cartilage tissues, useful in regenerative medicine for diseases such as osteoporosis, arthritis or osteoarthritis, all of them rising due to the increasing average age of the population.

A March 30, 2017 Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) press release, which originated the news item,, expands on the theme,

Apple pomace is an abundant raw material. The world production of apples was more than 70 million tons in 2015, of which the European Union contributed with more than 15%, while half a million tons of which came from Spain. About 75% of apples can be converted into juice and the rest, known as apple pomace, that contains approximately 20–30% dried matter, is used mainly as animal feed or for compost. Since apple pomace is generated in vast quantities and contains a large fraction of water, it poses storage problems and requires immediate treatments to prevent putrefaction. An alternative of great environmental interest is its transformation into value added commodities, thus reducing the volume of waste.

The procedure of the multivalorization of apple pomace carried out by the UPM and CSIC researchers are based on sequential extractions of different bioactive molecules, such as antioxidants or pectin, to finally obtain the waste from which they prepare a biomaterial with suitable porosity and texture to be used in tissue engineering.

The primary extraction of antioxidants and carbohydrates constitutes 2% of the dry weight of apple pomace and pectin extraction is 10%. The extracted chemical cells have a recognized value as nutraceuticals and pectin is a material of great utility in different medical applications, given its high biocompatibility and being part of antitumor drugs or in the treatment of coetaneous wounds.

Furthermore, it has been found that the materials remaining after antioxidant and pectin removal from apple pomace can still be designed with adequate structure, texture and composition to grow diverse types of cells. In this particularly case, the chosen cells were osteoblasts and chondrocytes, both of them related to the regeneration of bone and cartilage tissues because of their application in regenerative medicine in diseases such as osteoporosis, arthritis or osteoarthritis.

Today, there are products in the market with the same applications, however they have a high price reaching over €100 per gram, while waste used in this work hardly reaches €100 per ton. For this reason, there are consistent incentives to convert this waste into final products of great added value.

According to Milagro Ramos, a female researcher of the study, “with this approach we achieve a double goal, firstly using waste as a renewable raw material of high value and chemical diversity, and secondly, to reduce the impact of such waste accumulation on the environment”.

Thanks to the new materials obtained in this work, researchers are developing new technological applications that allow them to structure customized biomaterials through 3D printing techniques.

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

Multivalorization of apple pomace towards materials and chemicals. Waste to wealth by Malcolm Yates, Milagros Ramos Gomez, Maria A. Martin-Luengo, Violeta Zurdo Ibañez, Ana Maria Martinez Serrano. Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 143, 1 February 2017, Pages 847–853  http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.036

This paper is behind a paywall.

Chemicals that slow biological aging in yeast might help humans too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rather interesting image was included with the news release,

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

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

There’s also this,

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

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

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

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

This appears to be an open access paper.

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

Commercializing nanotechnology: Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs and Argonne National Laboratories

Breakout Labs

I last wrote about entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs project in an Oct. 26, 2011 posting announcing its inception. An Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release (received in my email) highlights a funding announcement for four startups of which at least three are nanotechnology-enabled,

Breakout Labs, a program of Peter Thiel’s philanthropic organization, the Thiel Foundation, announced today that four new companies advancing scientific discoveries in biomedical, chemical engineering, and nanotechnology have been selected for funding.

“We’re always hearing about bold new scientific research that promises to transform the world, but far too often the latest discoveries are left withering in a lab,” said Lindy Fishburne, Executive Director of Breakout Labs. “Our mission is to help a new type of scientist-entrepreneur navigate the startup ecosystem and build lasting companies that can make audacious scientific discoveries meaningful to everyday life. The four new companies joining the Breakout Labs portfolio – nanoGriptech, Maxterial, C2Sense, and CyteGen – embody that spirit and we’re excited to be working with them to help make their vision a reality.”

The future of adhesives: inspired by geckos

Inspired by the gecko’s ability to scuttle up walls and across ceilings due to their millions of micro/nano foot-hairs,nanoGriptech (http://nanogriptech.com/), based in Pittsburgh, Pa., is developing a new kind of microfiber adhesive material that is strong, lightweight, and reusable without requiring glues or producing harmful residues. Currently being tested by the U.S. military, NASA, and top global brands, nanoGriptech’s flagship product Setex™ is the first adhesive product of its kind that is not only strong and durable, but can also be manufactured at low cost, and at scale.

“We envision a future filled with no-leak biohazard enclosures, ergonomic and inexpensive car seats, extremely durable aerospace adhesives, comfortable prosthetic liners, high performance athletic wear, and widely available nanotechnology-enabled products manufactured less expensively — all thanks to the grippy little gecko,” said Roi Ben-Itzhak, CFO and VP of Business Development for nanoGriptech.

A sense of smell for the digital world

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent goals to drastically reduce food waste, most consumers don’t realize the global problem created by 1.3 billion metric tons of food wasted each year — clogging landfills and releasing unsustainable levels of methane gas into the atmosphere. Using technology developed at MIT’s Swager lab, Cambridge, Ma.-based C2Sense(http://www.c2sense.com/) is developing inexpensive, lightweight hand-held sensors based on carbon nanotubes which can detect fruit ripeness and meat, fish and poultry freshness. Smaller than a half of a business card, these sensors can be developed at very low cost, require very little power to operate, and can be easily integrated into most agricultural supply chains, including food storage packaging, to ensure that food is picked, stored, shipped, and sold at optimal freshness.

“Our mission is to bring a sense of smell to the digital world. With our technology, that package of steaks in your refrigerator will tell you when it’s about to go bad, recommend some recipe options and help build out your shopping list,” said Jan Schnorr, Chief Technology Officer of C2Sense.

Amazing metals that completely repel water

MaxterialTM, Inc. develops amazing materials that resist a variety of detrimental environmental effects through technology that emulates similar strategies found in nature, such as the self-cleaning lotus leaf and antifouling properties of crabs. By modifying the surface shape or texture of a metal, through a method that is very affordable and easy to introduce into the existing manufacturing process, Maxterial introduces a microlayer of air pockets that reduce contact surface area. The underlying material can be chemically the same as ever, retaining inherent properties like thermal and electrical conductivity. But through Maxterial’s technology, the metallic surface also becomes inherently water repellant. This property introduces the superhydrophobic maxterial as a potential solution to a myriad of problems, such as corrosion, biofouling, and ice formation. Maxterial is currently focused on developing durable hygienic and eco-friendly anti-corrosion coatings for metallic surfaces.

“Our process has the potential to create metallic objects that retain their amazing properties for the lifetime of the object – this isn’t an aftermarket coating that can wear or chip off,” said Mehdi Kargar, Co-founder and CEO of Maxterial, Inc. “We are working towards a day when shipping equipment can withstand harsh arctic environments, offshore structures can resist corrosion, and electronics can be fully submersible and continue working as good as new.”

New approaches to combat aging

CyteGen (http://cytegen.com/) wants to dramatically increase the human healthspan, tackle neurodegenerative diseases, and reverse age-related decline. What makes this possible now is new discovery tools backed by the dream team of interdisciplinary experts the company has assembled. CyteGen’s approach is unusually collaborative, tapping into the resources and expertise of world-renowned researchers across eight major universities to focus different strengths and perspectives to achieve the company’s goals. By approaching aging from a holistic, systematic point of view, rather than focusing solely on discrete definitions of disease, they have developed a new way to think about aging, and to develop treatments that can help people live longer, healthier lives.

“There is an assumption that aging necessarily brings the kind of physical and mental decline that results in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases. Evidence indicates otherwise, which is what spurred us to launch CyteGen,” said George Ugras, Co-Founder and President of CyteGen.

To date, Breakout Labs has invested in more than two dozen companies at the forefront of science, helping radical technologies get beyond common hurdles faced by early stage companies, and advance research and development to market much more quickly. Portfolio companies have raised more than six times the amount of capital invested in the program by the Thiel Foundation, and represent six Series A valuations ranging from $10 million to $60 million as well as one acquisition.

You can see the original Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release here or in this Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Azonano.

Argonne National Labs and Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS)

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Oct. 6, 2015 press release by Greg Cunningham announced two initiatives meant to speed commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products for the energy storage and other sectors,

Few technologies hold more potential to positively transform our society than energy storage and nanotechnology. Advances in energy storage research will revolutionize the way the world generates and stores energy, democratizing the delivery of electricity. Grid-level storage can help reduce carbon emissions through the increased adoption of renewable energy and use of electric vehicles while helping bring electricity to developing parts of the world. Nanotechnology has already transformed the electronics industry and is bringing a new set of powerful tools and materials to developers who are changing everything from the way energy is generated, stored and transported to how medicines are delivered and the way chemicals are produced through novel catalytic nanomaterials.

Recognizing the power of these technologies and seeking to accelerate their impact, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has created two new collaborative centers that provide an innovative pathway for business and industry to access Argonne’s unparalleled scientific resources to address the nation’s energy and national security needs. These centers will help speed discoveries to market to ensure U.S. industry maintains a lead in this global technology race.

“This is an exciting time for us, because we believe this new approach to interacting with business can be a real game changer in two areas of research that are of great importance to Argonne and the world,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “We recognize that delivering to market our breakthrough science in energy storage and nanotechnology can help ensure our work brings the maximum benefit to society.”

Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) will provide central points of contact for companies — ranging from large industrial entities to smaller businesses and startups, as well as government agencies — to benefit from Argonne’s world-class expertise, scientific tools and facilities.

NDW and ACCESS represent a new way to collaborate at Argonne, providing a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne’s fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.

The center directors, Andreas Roelofs of NDW and Jeff Chamberlain of ACCESS, have both created startups in their careers and understand the value that collaboration with a national laboratory can bring to a company trying to innovate in technologically challenging fields of science. While the new centers will work with all sizes of companies, a strong emphasis will be placed on helping small businesses and startups, which are drivers of job creation and receive a large portion of the risk capital in this country.

“For a startup like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” said Roelofs. “We”ve seen the power of that sort of access, and we want to make it available to the companies that need it to drive truly transformative technologies to market.”

Chamberlain said his experience as an energy storage researcher and entrepreneur led him to look for innovative approaches to leveraging the best aspects of private industry and public science. The national laboratory system has a long history of breakthrough science that has worked its way to market, but shortening that journey from basic research to product has become a growing point of emphasis for the national laboratories over the past couple of decades. The idea behind ACCESS and NDW is to make that collaboration even easier and more powerful.

“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multi-disciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” Chamberlain said. “That might mean assembling a team with chemists, physicists, computer scientists, materials engineers, imaging experts, or mechanical and electrical engineers; the list goes on and on. It’s that ability to tap the full spectrum of cross-cutting expertise at Argonne that will really make the difference.”

Chamberlain is deeply familiar with the potential of energy storage as a transformational technology, having led the formation of Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). The center’s years-long quest to discover technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries has solidified the laboratory’s reputation as one of the key global players in battery research. ACCESS will tap Argonne’s full battery expertise, which extends well beyond JCESR and is dedicated to fulfilling the promise of energy storage.

Energy storage research has profound implications for energy security and national security. Chamberlain points out that approximately 1.3 billion people across the globe do not have access to electricity, with another billion having only sporadic access. Energy storage, coupled with renewable generation like solar, could solve that problem and eliminate the need to build out massive power grids. Batteries also have the potential to create a more secure, stable grid for countries with existing power systems and help fight global climate disruption through adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Argonne researchers are pursuing hundreds of projects in nanoscience, but some of the more notable include research into targeted drugs that affect only cancerous cells; magnetic nanofibers that can be used to create more powerful and efficient electric motors and generators; and highly efficient water filtration systems that can dramatically reduce the energy requirements for desalination or cleanup of oil spills. Other researchers are working with nanoparticles that create a super-lubricated state and other very-low friction coatings.

“When you think that 30 percent of a car engine’s power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs said. “But it’s not just about the ideas already at Argonne that can be brought to market, it’s also about the challenges for businesses that need Argonne-level resources. I”m convinced there are many startups out there working on transformational ideas that can greatly benefit from the help of a place Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition. That is what has me excited about ACCESS and NDW.”

For more information on ACCESS, see: access.anl.gov

For more information on NDW, see: nanoworks.anl.gov

You can read more about the announcement in an Oct. 6, 2015 article by Greg Watry for R&D magazine featuring an interview with Andreas Roelofs.

Nature of Things’ The Nano Revolution part 2: More than Human

More than Human (the episode can be seen here), part of 2 of a special Nature of Things series, The Nano Revolution, was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 20, 2011; one might be forgiven for thinking this episode concerned robots but that wasn’t the case.  The focus was on nanomedicine, specifically cancer and aging, along with a few scenarios hinting at social impacts of the ‘new’ medicine.

This episode, like the last one (Welcome to Nano City), presents the science in an understandable fashion without overexplaining basic concepts. A skill I much appreciate since watching a video of an engineer explain at length that the eye has a cornea and a retina to an audience of adults who were attending a talk about retinal implants.

More coherent than the first one, (Welcome to Nano City reviewed in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting), which featured three topics (one was totally unrelated to any city) both episodes,  convey excitement about the possibilities being suggested by nanotechnology.

As for this episode, More than human, it certainly told a compelling story of a future where there will be no cancer (or it will be easily treated if it does occur) and we won’t age as we can make perfect tissues to replace whatever has been broken. There were also hints of a few social issues as illustrated by future oriented vignettes interspersed through the programme.

I want to c0mmend the script writer for pulling together a story using disparate materials and videos (which I’m guessing are being repurposed, i.e., created for broadcast elsewhere and reused here). Given the broad range of nanomedicine research worldwide, this was a very difficult job.

Featured at some length was Dr. Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Here’s a description from Mirkin’s profile page on the Mirkin Group webspace,

Professor Mirkin is a chemist and a world renowned nanoscience expert, who is known for his development of nanoparticle-based biodetection schemes, the invention of Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and contributions to supramolecular chemistry, nanoelectronics, and nanooptics. [emphasis mine] He is the author of over 430 manuscripts and over 370 patents and applications, and the founder of three companies, Nanosphere, NanoInk, and Aurasense which are commercializing nanotechnology applications in the life science and semiconductor industries. Currently, he is listed as the most cited (based on total citations) chemist in the world with the second highest impact factor and the top most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. At present, he is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.

Mirkin talked extensively about his work on biomarker sensing and its applications for diagnostic procedures that cut laboratory testing down from weeks to hours. This new equipment arising from Mirkin’s work is installed in some US hospital laboratories.

Dr. Silvano Dragonieri of Leiden University in The Netherlands discussed his e-nose technology which offers another approach to diagnostics. Here’s a description of Dragonieri’s (and another team’s) work in this area from an April 27, 2009 news item on physorg.com,

In 2006 researchers established that dogs could detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. Now, using nanoscale arrays of detectors, two groups of investigators have shown that a compact mechanical device also can sniff out lung cancer in humans.

Hossam Haick, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, used a network of 10 sets of chemically modified carbon nanotubes to create a multicomponent sensor capable of discriminating between a healthy breath and one characteristic of lung cancer patients. This work appears in the journal Nano News. Meanwhile, Silvano Dragonieri, M.D., University of Bari, Italy, and his colleagues used a commercial nanoarray-based electronic “nose” to discriminate between the breath of patients with non-small cell lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These results appear in the journal Lung Cancer. [emphasis mine]

Nanomedicine is fascinating, which is why it’s easy to lose perspective. Thankfully there was Dr. Philip Kantoff  (also very enthused and a major figure in this area) to provide the voice of reason. Here’s more are about Kantoff from the profile page on the WEBMD website,

Dr. Kantoff has published more than 100 research articles on a variety of topics, including the molecular basis of genitourinary cancers and improved treatments for patients afflicted with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and testicular cancer. His laboratory research involves understanding the genetics of prostate cancer. His clinical research involves clinical trials of novel therapeutic treatments for the genitourinary cancers. He teaches at Harvard Medical School, and lectures internationally to both medical and lay audiences. Dr. Kantoff has written nearly 100 reviews and monographs on cancer and has edited numerous books, including Prostate Cancer, A Multi-Disciplinary Guide published by Blackwell, and Prostate Cancer: Principles and Practice, a definitive text on prostate cancer, published in December 2001 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. He has also written a popular book, Prostate Cancer, a Family Consultation, published by Houghton Mifflin.

As Kantoff counsels against over-hyping he notes that much of the work in the area of nanomedicine is in the laboratory; there are still animal trials and human clinical trials to be convened for further testing.

Building on Kantoff’s observations: let’s consider the difference between research and clinical practice. Even after the human clinical trials have taken place, there’s still uncertainty about how this new procedure or medication, no matter how personalized, will affect an individual. Would aspirin be available over-the-counter today if we’d known all of the side effects which many people suffer from? No, not a chance. How long did it take to find out that aspirin was a problem? Several years.

The idea that this new ‘personalized’ medicine that Mirkin refers to will provide a perfect solution to any disease is based on the belief that we understand disease processes. We do not. Yes, we’ve catalogued any number of genomes, etc. but at least one question remains. Why do some people who have one or more biomarker for a disease never experience it while others with fewer biomarkers do?

While that question wasn’t raised in the episode I was impressed with the fact that they did mention patent issues (innovation and, in this care, care can be stifled by patents and this seems to be increasingly the case); some larger philosophical issues, just how long do you want to live?, and who gets to enjoy these new benefits (if  such they be)?

I do have a few quibbles, there was no Canadian content other than David Suzuki reading a script as narration for the episode (this was true of the first episode too). The title, More than human, suggests not just robots but human enhancement too and that topic was barely discussed.

In future, I’d like to suggest a little more humility in programmes about nanotechnology. I found the constant references to ‘controlling’ atoms, matter, disease, etc. to be disconcerting. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t control an atom, we try to understand it and based on that understanding find better ways to exist in this universe.