Tag Archives: frankenfoods

Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (part five of five)

The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’.

Now for the summary. Ranging from research meant to divulge more about how the brain operates in hopes of healing conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzeheimer’s diseases to utilizing public engagement exercises (first developed for nanotechnology) for public education and acceptance of brain research to the development of prostheses for the nervous system such as the Walk Again robotic suit for individuals with paraplegia (and, I expect quadriplegia [aka tetraplegia] in the future), brain research is huge in terms of its impact socially and economically across the globe.

Until now, I have not included information about neuromorphic engineering (creating computers with the processing capabilities of human brains). My May 16, 2014 posting (Wacky oxide. biological synchronicity, and human brainlike computing) features one of the latest developments along with this paragraph providing links to overview materials of the field,

As noted earlier, there are other approaches to creating an artificial brain, i.e., neuromorphic engineering. My April 7, 2014 posting is the most recent synopsis posted here; it includes excerpts from a Nanowerk Spotlight article overview along with a mention of the ‘brain jelly’ approach and a discussion of my somewhat extensive coverage of memristors and a mention of work on nanoionic devices. There is also a published roadmap to neuromorphic engineering featuring both analog and digital devices, mentioned in my April 18, 2014 posting.

There is an international brain (artificial and organic) enterprise underway. Meanwhile, work understanding the brain will lead to new therapies and, inevitably, attempts to enhance intelligence. There are already drugs and magic potions (e.g. oxygenated water in Mental clarity, stamina, endurance — is it in the bottle? Celebrity athletes tout the benefits of oxygenated water, but scientists have their doubts, a May 16,2014 article by Pamela Fayerman for the Vancouver Sun). In a June 19, 2009 posting featured Jamais Cascio’s  speculations about augmenting intelligence in an Atlantic magazine article.

While researchers such Miguel Nicolelis work on exoskeletons (externally worn robotic suits) controlled by the wearer’s thoughts and giving individuals with paraplegia the ability to walk, researchers from one of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes reveal a different technology for achieving the same ends. From a May 16, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

People with severe injuries to their spinal cord currently have no prospect of recovery and remain confined to their wheelchairs. Now, all that could change with a new treatment that stimulates the spinal cord using electric impulses. The hope is that the technique will help paraplegic patients learn to walk again. From June 3 – 5 [2-14], Fraunhofer researchers will be at the Sensor + Test measurement fair in Nürnberg to showcase the implantable microelectrode sensors they have developed in the course of pre-clinical development work (Hall 12, Booth 12-537).

A May 14, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about this technology along with an image of the implantable microelectrode sensors,

The implantable microelectrode sensors are flexible and wafer-thin. © Fraunhofer IMM

The implantable microelectrode sensors are flexible and wafer-thin.
© Fraunhofer IMM

Now a consortium of European research institutions and companies want to get affected patients quite literally back on their feet. In the EU’s [European Union’s] NEUWalk project, which has been awarded funding of some nine million euros, researchers are working on a new method of treatment designed to restore motor function in patients who have suffered severe injuries to their spinal cord. The technique relies on electrically stimulating the nerve pathways in the spinal cord. “In the injured area, the nerve cells have been damaged to such an extent that they no longer receive usable information from the brain, so the stimulation needs to be delivered beneath that,” explains Dr. Peter Detemple, head of department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology’s Mainz branch (IMM) and NEUWalk project coordinator. To do this, Detemple and his team are developing flexible, wafer-thin microelectrodes that are implanted within the spinal canal on the spinal cord. These multichannel electrode arrays stimulate the nerve pathways with electric impulses that are generated by the accompanying by microprocessor-controlled neurostimulator. “The various electrodes of the array are located around the nerve roots responsible for locomotion. By delivering a series of pulses, we can trigger those nerve roots in the correct order to provoke motion sequences of movements and support the motor function,” says Detemple.

Researchers from the consortium have already successfully conducted tests on rats in which the spinal cord had not been completely severed. As well as stimulating the spinal cord, the rats were given a combination of medicine and rehabilitation training. Afterwards the animals were able not only to walk but also to run, climb stairs and surmount obstacles. “We were able to trigger specific movements by delivering certain sequences of pulses to the various electrodes implanted on the spinal cord,” says Detemple. The research scientist and his team believe that the same approach could help people to walk again, too. “We hope that we will be able to transfer the results of our animal testing to people. Of course, people who have suffered injuries to their spinal cord will still be limited when it comes to sport or walking long distances. The first priority is to give them a certain level of independence so that they can move around their apartment and look after themselves, for instance, or walk for short distances without requiring assistance,” says Detemple.

Researchers from the NEUWalk project intend to try out their system on two patients this summer. In this case, the patients are not completely paraplegic, which means there is still some limited communication between the brain and the legs. The scientists are currently working on tailored implants for the intervention. “However, even if both trials are a success, it will still be a few years before the system is ready for the general market. First, the method has to undergo clinical studies and demonstrate its effectiveness among a wider group of patients,” says Detemple.

Patients with Parkinson’s disease could also benefit from the neural prostheses. The most well-known symptoms of the disease are trembling, extreme muscle tremors and a short, [emphasis mine] stooped gait that has a profound effect on patients’ mobility. Until now this neurodegenerative disorder has mostly been treated with dopamine agonists – drugs that chemically imitate the effects of dopamine but that often lead to severe side effects when taken over a longer period of time. Once the disease has reached an advanced stage, doctors often turn to deep brain stimulation. This involves a complex operation to implant electrodes in specific parts of the brain so that the nerve cells in the region can be stimulated or suppressed as required. In the NEUWalk project, researchers are working on electric spinal cord simulation – an altogether less dangerous intervention that should however ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease just as effectively. “Initial animal testing has yielded some very promising results,” says Detemple.

(For anyone interested in the NEUWalk project, you can find more here,) Note the reference to Parkinson’s in the context of work designed for people with paraplegia. Brain research and prosthetics (specifically neuroprosthetics or neural prosthetics), are interconnected. As for the nanotechnology connection, in its role as an enabling technology it has provided some of the tools that make these efforts possible. It has also made some of the work in neuromorphic engineering (attempts to create an artificial brain that mimics the human brain) possible. It is a given that research on the human brain will inform efforts in neuromorphic engineering and that attempts will be made to create prostheses for the brain (cyborg brain) and other enhancements.

One final comment, I’m not so sure that transferring approaches and techniques developed to gain public acceptance of nanotechnology are necessarily going to be effective. (Harthorn seemed to be suggesting in her presentation to the Presidential Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues that these ‘nano’ approaches could be adopted. Other researchers [Caulfield with the genome and Racine with previous neuroscience efforts] also suggested their experience could be transferred. While some of that is likely true,, it should be noted that some self-interest may be involved as brain research is likely to be a fresh source of funding for social science researchers with experience in nanotechnology and genomics who may be finding their usual funding sources less generous than previously.)

The likelihood there will be a substantive public panic over brain research is higher than it ever was for a nanotechnology panic (I am speaking with the benefit of hindsight re: nano panics). Everyone understands the word, ‘brain’, far fewer understand the word ‘nanotechnology’ which means that the level of interest is lower and people are less likely to get disturbed by an obscure technology. (The GMO panic gained serious traction with the ‘Frankenfood’ branding and when it fused rather unexpectedly with another research story,  stem cell research. In the UK, one can also add the panic over ‘mad cow’ disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), as it’s also known, to the mix. It was the GMO and other assorted panics which provided the impetus for much of the public engagement funding for nanotechnology.)

All one has to do in this instance is start discussions about changing someone’s brain and cyborgs and these researchers may find they have a much more volatile situation on their hands. As well, everyone (the general public and civil society groups/activists, not just the social science and science researchers) involved in the nanotechnology public engagement exercises has learned from the experience. In the meantime, pop culture concerns itself with zombies and we all know what they like to eat.

Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series

Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)

Part two: BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (May 19, 2014)

Part three: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (May 20, 2014)

Part four: Brazil, the 2014 World Cup kickoff, and a mind-controlled exoskeleton (May 20, 2014)

Nano and food: don’t ask, don’t tell

Michael Berger’s Nanowerk Spotlight Feb. 2,2012 articleWhat’s happening with nanofoods?‘ answers a question I’ve been asking myself lately. As he points out (I have removed the links, please visit Berger’s article to pursue them),

Back in the early 2000’s, food nanotechnology seemed to be a very hot topic and large industrial food companies were eager to explore new opportunities offered by nanotechnology applications. Then, as critical voices from NGOs (see for instance FoE’s report: “Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture”) and regulators (UK House of Lords report: “Nanotechnologies and Food”) appeared, the food industry went into silent mode (see our Nanowerk Spotlight: “Food nanotechnology – how the industry is blowing it”). But that doesn’t mean that food nanotechnologies aren’t being researched and developed in labs around the world.

He goes on to describe the state of nanofood research on an application by application basis (culled from an article inTrends in Food Science & TechnologyFood applications of nanotechnologies: An overview of opportunities and challenges for developing countries” [behind a paywall]). Here’s my excerpt from Berger’s article,

Application Status
Processed nanostructured or -textured food (e.g. less use of fat and emulsifiers, better taste) A number of nanostructured food ingredients and additives understood to be in the R&D pipeline; eg. mayonnaise
Nanocarrier systems for delivery of nutrients and supplements in the form of liposomes or biopolymer-based nanoencapsulated substances A number are commercially available in some countries and over the internet
Organic nanosized additives for food, supplements and animal feed Materials range from colors, preservatives, flavorings to supplements and antimicrobials
Inorganic nanosized additives for food, health food, and animal feed A range of inorganic additives (silver, iron, silica, titanium dioxide, selenium, platinum, calcium, magnesium) is available for supplements, nutraceuticals, and food and feed applications

Berger goes on to enumerate more applications and extends the discussion into the area of public perceptions, industry fears of another ‘Frankenfoods/GM” panic, and corporate social responsibility.

On reading Berger’s article, I was reminded of my Oct. 11, 2011 posting abut a Coca Cola executive’s response to criticisms of corporate secrecy regarding nanofood research and applications from the UK’s House of Lords,

Lord Krebs, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, scolded the sector over its “reluctance to put its head above the parapet and declare openly what kind of research was going on to develop nanotechnology in food”. The report [Nanotechnologies and Food: Science and Technology Committee Report] backed the introduction of a public register on the nano-research to assuage consumer anxiety.

But Dr Knowles [Dr. Mike Knowles, global scientific and regulatory affairs vice president for Coca-Cola] rejected the criticisms and said it was a failure of the committee to grasp basic commercial realities.

I’m pretty sure that Lord Krebs wasn’t suggesting that food and beverage companies reveal industrial secrets giving away competitive advantages but that they should let the public know what’s cooking in their labs. For anyone who’s interested in the current state of nanofood research, Berger’s recent Spotlight is an excellent place to start.

Synthetic biology: commercialization, Canadian farmers, and public discourse

You may see synthetic biology (or more properly a synthetic organism) referred to as ‘Synthia’. The term was coined (or, for some word play, created) by the ETC Group as they note in their May 20, 2010 news release about J. Craig Venter’s latest accomplishment (noted on this blog here and here),

The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

Clearly the ETC Group, which is based in Canada, has been gearing up for a campaign. It’ll be interesting to note whether or not they are successful at making ‘Synthia’ stick. I gather the group was able to capitalize on ‘frankenfoods’ for the campaign on genetically modified foods but someone else coined that phrase for them. (You can read about who coined the phrase in Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book, Frankenstein; a cultural history.)

The advantage with ‘frankenfoods’ is the reference to an internationally recognized cultural icon, Frankenstein, and all of the associations that naturally follow. With ‘Synthia’, the ETC Group will have to build (link? graft?) the references to/onto the term.

I shouldn’t forget that the ETC Group does make an important point with this,

The team behind today’s announcement, led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents related to Synthia’s technology.

In a possibly related (to the ETC Group) statement, the National Farmers Union (NFU) had this to say (from the May 22, 2010 news item on CBC News),

The National Farmers Union says the development of a synthetic cell could lead to worrisome, long-term consequences.

“This new technology raises serious concerns about who controls it, what it will be used for, and its potential impact,” [Terry] Boehm [president, NFU] said.

There are two things I want to note. First, the concerns raised by the ETC Group, the NFU, and others in Canada and across the globe are important and require discussion. Second, all of the parties involved business interests, civil society groups, scientists, government agencies, etc. work independently and together (formally and informally) to promote their interests.

In a related note: In a May 23, 2010 CBC news item (published on Sunday during a long weekend),

The government is looking for ways to monitor online chatter about political issues and correct what it perceives as misinformation.

The move started recently with a pilot project on the East Coast seal hunt. A Toronto-based company called Social Media Group has been hired to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has paid the firm $75,000 “to monitor social activity and help identify … areas where misinformation is being presented and repeated as fact,” Simone MacAndrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email.

The firm alerts the government to questionable online comments and then employees in Foreign Affairs or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have recently been trained in online posting, point the authors to information the government considers more accurate.

It appears to be just the beginning. [emphases mine]

(Digression alert! Does this mean I’ll be able to easily get more information about nanotechnology research in Canada, about the national institute, about nanomaterials, about proposed regulatory frameworks, etc.?)

I have to admit to being suspicious about this ‘information initiative’ when the announcement appears to have been made in an email during a holiday weekend. As well, it seems a bit schizoid given the government’s ban (I’ve commented about that here) on direct communication between journalists and scientists working for Environment Canada. So, the government will contact us if they think we have it wrong but a journalist can’t directly approach one of their scientists to ask a question.

Returning to my main focus, the impact that all these groups with their interests, by turns competitive and collegial, will have on the synthetic biology debate is impossible to evaluate at this time. It does seem that much of the framing for the discussion has been predetermined by various interest groups while the rest of us have remained in relative ignorance. I think the ‘pre-framing’ is inevitable given that most of us would not be interested in engaging in a discussion about developments which were largely theoretical, until recently.

For those who are interested in learning about the science and the debates, check out the Oscillator here. She notes that we’ve had some parts of this discussion as early as the 19th century,

My ScienceBlogs colleague PZ Myers compares the synthetic genome to Wöhler’s chemical synthesis of urea in 1828. In the 19th century, scientists debated whether or not the chemicals that make up living cells–organic chemistry–had to be made by a cell possessing a “vital spark” or could be made by humans in a test tube. By synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate, Wöhler broke down some of the mysticism associated with living cells. From that point on, organic chemistry stopped being magic and became a science.

Does the Venter Institute’s achievement show that life is just chemicals? I don’t think so …

Selling science; policy founded on evidence-based research

There’s more from the 2009 Canadian Science Policy conference in Toronto last week. Preston Manning (part 1 and part 2 of his interview for this blog) was Day 2’s keynote speaker and Rob Annan covers Manning’s suggestions for Canadian science policy here. In reading over Rob’s comments for all three days, the speakers’ focus seemed to be on encouraging scientists to learn how to better communicate to politicians, to organize themselves with the purpose of communicating more effectively, and to engage directly in politics, policymaking, and society.

I have commented previously here on how much more effective scientists in the US (and elsewhere) have been with their communication efforts. There is much room for improvement in Canada although I have to admit to choking on this suggestion of Manning’s,

c) create a working group who can work on the application of the science of communication to the communication of science (he liked that phrase – it’s pretty good). Basically, figure out new and innovative ways to get the message out.

The ‘science of communication’ … hmmm … is this like the science of marketing? or the science of advertising? …  It sounds as if Manning believes that there’s a formula. Well, advertisers have an old formula/saying, “50% of your advertising works but nobody knows which 50%. ”

Take the ‘frankenfoods’ or GM (genetically modified) foods debacle for an example of a wildly successful communications campaign. That was a lightning strike. As I noted here in my posting, ‘The unpredictability of ‘frankenfoods’, the activist groups got lucky. There was also another element, most successful campaigns, activist or otherwise, are based on persistence and hard work. In other words, you keep pitching. Add to or change your techniques and  your tools, tweak your messages, etc. but above all, keep pitching.

Selling science is a complicated affair (what follows is a simplified list) because those messages are competing with many others; reciprocity and respect  (i.e. listening to what your recipient has to say) is not always included in the equation especially when it seems uninformed or downright foolish by your standards; and/or your recipients may never be able to accept your message regardless of the evidence supporting your position.

Andrew Maynard has posted about a situation in the UK where the recipients (government officials) are unable or unwilling to consider a new position despite extensive evidence.  Professor David Nutt was until recently the senior scientific advisor to the UK government on the misuse of drugs. He was sacked after a paper he authored was released this last month (October 2009). I found a newspaper (The Guardian) account by Mark Tran of the situation here.

Andrew’s analysis points to something that we’ve all observed, people will choose to disbelieve something against all reason. In fact, we’ve all done it. You just don’t want to change your mind about something that’s usually a deeply held belief linking to your basic worldview. I call it the triumph of orthodoxy over fact.

Bravo to Professor Nutt for his thoughtful paper and his courage (I suspect he was well aware that there might be a reprisal.)

I hope Canadian scientists do become more involved and communicate more effectively while realizing that there are no guarantees that they will achieve their dearly hoped-for outcomes. In the shorter term.

Over the longer term, things change. The concept of universal literacy, democracy; women having the right to vote; ubiquitous electricity; etc. All of these things were bitterly fought against over decades or more.

‘Magic nano’ and whistling in the dark

So a ‘frankenfoods’ situation is difficult to manufacture in the same way that it’s difficult to manufacture any fad or craze or panic. A case in point is ‘magic nano’, a situation I first heard about in a December 2007 webcast from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. A reporter who works with NPR, Nell Greenfieldboyce, asked the audience if they’d heard of it. When blank incomprehension met her question she went on to explain that  a cleaning product, marketed and sold in Germany, called ‘magic nano’ had occasioned concern a few years back in the nanotech community. Someone had gotten sick after using the product and, initially, there was a lot of news coverage in Europe along with some interest elsewhere. In the end, it all came to naught. It seems (Greenfieldboyce had been unable to confirm this definitively) that there was no nanotechnology component to the product and that the ‘nano’ was strictly for marketing purposes. For most people the story is dead; no one has heard of ‘magic nano’. Except for the people who keep mentioning the story in workshops and other events.

I heard the ‘magic nano’ story again in July 2008 at a local nano breakfast event that featured, Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, from ICON (International Council on Nanotechnology) and Rice University. she was talking about health and safety and asked us if we’d heard of ‘magic nano’. Again, there was the blank incomprehension and so she told the story. She then implied that the ‘magic nano’ story’s lack of impact proves that there won’t be any nanotechnology panics on the order of what happened with biotechnology, i.e. ‘frankenfoods’. That is possible but the failure of the ‘magic nano’ story is not evidence to support the conclusion. In other words, it’s whistling in the dark.

There can be many, many failures before something catches the public’s attention and, if it turns to panic, no amount of thoughtful commentary before or after  will help. And, sometimes the public is right and the brakes do need to be applied.

I do think public engagement/consultation/understanding of science projects and exercises are useful but they aren’t prophylactic treatments.

The availability heuristic and the perception of risk

It’s taking a lot longer to go through the Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology article than I expected. But, let’s move onwards. “Availability” is the other main heuristic used when trying to understand how people perceive risk. This one is about how we assess the likelihood of one or more risks.

According to researchers, individuals who can easily recall a memory specific to a given harm are predisposed to overestimating the probability of its recurrence, compared to to other more likely harms to which no memory is attached. p. 49 in Nanoethics, 2008, vol. 2

This memory extends beyond your personal experience (although it remains the most powerful) all the way to reading or hearing about an incident.  The effect can also be exacerbated by imagery and social reinforcement. Probably the most powerful, recent example would be ‘frankenfoods’. We read about the cloning of Dolly the sheep who died soon after her ‘brith’, there was the ‘stem cell debate, and ‘mad cow disease’ which somehow got mixed together in a debate on genetically modified food evolving into a discussion about biotechnology in general. The whole thing was summed as ‘frankenfood’ a term which fused a very popular icon of science gone mad, Frankenstein, with the food we put in our mouths. (Note: It is a little more complicated than that but I’m not in the mood to write a long paper or dissertation where every nuance and development is discussed.) It was propelled by the media and activists had one of their most successful campaigns.

Getting back to ‘availability’ it is a very powerful heuristic to use when trying to understand how people perceive risk.

The thing with ‘frankenfoods’ is that wasn’t planned. Susan Tyler Hitchcock in her book, ‘Frankensein; a cultural history’ (2007), traces the birth of the term in a 1992 letter written by Paul Lewis to the New York Times through to its use as a clarion cry for activists, the media, and a newly worried public. Lewis coined the phrase and one infers from the book that it was done casually. The phrase was picked up by other media outlets and other activists (Lewis is both a professor and an activist). For the full story, check out Tyler’s book pp. 288-294.

I have heard the ETC Group as being credited with the ‘frankenfoods’ debate and pushing the activist agenda. While they may have been active in the debate, I have not been able to find any documentation to support the contention that the ETC Group made it happen. (Please let me know if you have found something.)

The authors (Marchant, Sylvester, and Abbott) of this risk management paper feel that nanotechnology is vulnerable to the same sort of cascading effects that the ‘availability’ heuristic provides a framework for understanding. Coming next, a ‘new’ risk management model.