Tag Archives: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT

Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)

This story got me to thinking about what happens when any kind of implant company (pacemaker, deep brain stimulator, etc.) goes bankrupt or is acquired by another company with a different business model.

As I worked on this piece, more issues were raised and the scope expanded to include prosthetics along with implants while the focus narrowed to neuro as in, neural implants and neuroprosthetics. At the same time, I found salient examples for this posting in other medical advances such as gene editing.

In sum, all references to implants and prosthetics are to neural devices and some issues are illustrated with salient examples from other medical advances (specifically, gene editing).

Definitions (for those who find them useful)

The US Food and Drug Administration defines implants and prosthetics,

Medical implants are devices or tissues that are placed inside or on the surface of the body. Many implants are prosthetics, intended to replace missing body parts. Other implants deliver medication, monitor body functions, or provide support to organs and tissues.

As for what constitutes a neural implant/neuroprosthetic, there’s this from Emily Waltz’s January 20, 2020 article (How Do Neural Implants Work? Neural implants are used for deep brain stimulation, vagus nerve stimulation, and mind-controlled prostheses) for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum magazine,

A neural implant, then, is a device—typically an electrode of some kind—that’s inserted into the body, comes into contact with tissues that contain neurons, and interacts with those neurons in some way.

Now, let’s start with the recent near bankruptcy of a retinal implant company.

The company goes bust (more or less)

From a February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting/audio file, Note: Links have been removed,

Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound.’”

It wasn’t her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she’d been able to see with the implant’s help vanished.

Terry Byland is the only person to have received this kind of implant in both eyes. He got the first-generation Argus I implant, made by the company Second Sight Medical Products, in his right eye in 2004, and the subsequent Argus II implant in his left 11 years later. He helped the company test the technology, spoke to the press movingly about his experiences, and even met Stevie Wonder at a conference. “[I] went from being just a person that was doing the testing to being a spokesman,” he remembers.

Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn’t know how long that will be the case. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I’m fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I’m screwed. Because there’s no way of getting it fixed.”

Science Friday and the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum magazine collaborated to produce this story. You’ll find the audio files and the transcript of interviews with the authors and one of the implant patients in this February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting.

Here’s more from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article by Eliza Strickland and Mark Harris,

Ross Doerr, another Second Sight patient, doesn’t mince words: “It is fantastic technology and a lousy company,” he says. He received an implant in one eye in 2019 and remembers seeing the shining lights of Christmas trees that holiday season. He was thrilled to learn in early 2020 that he was eligible for software upgrades that could further improve his vision. Yet in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard troubling rumors about the company and called his Second Sight vision-rehab therapist. “She said, ‘Well, funny you should call. We all just got laid off,’ ” he remembers. She said, ‘By the way, you’re not getting your upgrades.’ ”

These three patients, and more than 350 other blind people around the world with Second Sight’s implants in their eyes, find themselves in a world in which the technology that transformed their lives is just another obsolete gadget. One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

The writers included some information about what happened to the business, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article, Note: Links have been removed,

After Second Sight discontinued its retinal implant in 2019 and nearly went out of business in 2020, a public offering in June 2021 raised US $57.5 million at $5 per share. The company promised to focus on its ongoing clinical trial of a brain implant, called Orion, that also provides artificial vision. But its stock price plunged to around $1.50, and in February 2022, just before this article was published, the company announced a proposed merger with an early-stage biopharmaceutical company called Nano Precision Medical (NPM). None of Second Sight’s executives will be on the leadership team of the new company, which will focus on developing NPM’s novel implant for drug delivery.The company’s current leadership declined to be interviewed for this article but did provide an emailed statement prior to the merger announcement. It said, in part: “We are a recognized global leader in neuromodulation devices for blindness and are committed to developing new technologies to treat the broadest population of sight-impaired individuals.”

It’s unclear what Second Sight’s proposed merger means for Argus patients. The day after the merger was announced, Adam Mendelsohn, CEO of Nano Precision Medical, told Spectrum that he doesn’t yet know what contractual obligations the combined company will have to Argus and Orion patients. But, he says, NPM will try to do what’s “right from an ethical perspective.” The past, he added in an email, is “simply not relevant to the new future.”

There may be some alternatives, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article (Note: Links have been removed),

Second Sight may have given up on its retinal implant, but other companies still see a need—and a market—for bionic vision without brain surgery. Paris-based Pixium Vision is conducting European and U.S. feasibility trials to see if its Prima system can help patients with age-related macular degeneration, a much more common condition than retinitis pigmentosa.

Daniel Palanker, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University who licensed his technology to Pixium, says the Prima implant is smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the Argus II. But he argues that Prima’s superior image resolution has the potential to make Pixium Vision a success. “If you provide excellent vision, there will be lots of patients,” he tells Spectrum. “If you provide crappy vision, there will be very few.”

Some clinicians involved in the Argus II work are trying to salvage what they can from the technology. Gislin Dagnelie, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has set up a network of clinicians who are still working with Argus II patients. The researchers are experimenting with a thermal camera to help users see faces, a stereo camera to filter out the background, and AI-powered object recognition. These upgrades are unlikely to result in commercial hardware today but could help future vision prostheses.

The writers have carefully balanced this piece so it is not an outright condemnation of the companies (Second Sight and Nano Precision), from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article,

Failure is an inevitable part of innovation. The Argus II was an innovative technology, and progress made by Second Sight may pave the way for other companies that are developing bionic vision systems. But for people considering such an implant in the future, the cautionary tale of Argus patients left in the lurch may make a tough decision even tougher. Should they take a chance on a novel technology? If they do get an implant and find that it helps them navigate the world, should they allow themselves to depend upon it?

Abandoning the Argus II technology—and the people who use it—might have made short-term financial sense for Second Sight, but it’s a decision that could come back to bite the merged company if it does decide to commercialize a brain implant, believes Doerr.

For anyone curious about retinal implant technology (specifically the Argus II), I have a description in a June 30, 2015 posting.

Speculations and hopes for neuroprosthetics

The field of neuroprosthetics is very active. Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg have written an article where they speculate about the possibilities of a neuroprosthetic that may one day merge with neurons in a February 21, 2022 Nanowerk Spotlight article,

For over a generation several types of medical neuroprosthetics have been developed, which have improved the lives of thousands of individuals. For instance, cochlear implants have restored functional hearing in individuals with severe hearing impairment.

Further advances in motor neuroprosthetics are attempting to restore motor functions in tetraplegic, limb loss and brain stem stroke paralysis subjects.

Currently, scientists are working on various kinds of brain/machine interfaces [BMI] in order to restore movement and partial sensory function. One such device is the ‘Ipsihand’ that enables movement of a paralyzed hand. The device works by detecting the recipient’s intention in the form of electrical signals, thereby triggering hand movement.

Another recent development is the 12 month BMI gait neurohabilitation program that uses a visual-tactile feedback system in combination with a physical exoskeleton and EEG operated AI actuators while walking. This program has been tried on eight patients with reported improvements in lower limb movement and somatic sensation.

Surgically placed electrode implants have also reduced tremor symptoms in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Although neuroprosthetics have provided various benefits they do have their problems. Firstly, electrode implants to the brain are prone to degradation, necessitating new implants after a few years. Secondly, as in any kind of surgery, implanted electrodes can cause post-operative infection and glial scarring. Furthermore, one study showed that the neurobiological efficacy of an implant is dependent on the rate of speed of its insertion.

But what if humans designed a neuroprosthetic, which could bypass the medical glitches of invasive neuroprosthetics? However, instead of connecting devices to neural networks, this neuroprosthetic would directly merge with neurons – a novel step. Such a neuroprosthetic could radically optimize treatments for neurodegenerative disorders and brain injuries, and possibly cognitive enhancement [emphasis mine].

A team of three international scientists has recently designed a nanobased neuroprosthetic, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience (“Integration of Nanobots Into Neural Circuits As a Future Therapy for Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders“). [open access paper published in 2018]

An interesting feature of their nanobot neuroprosthetic is that it has been inspired from nature by way of endomyccorhizae – a type of plant/fungus symbiosis, which is over four hundred million years old. During endomyccorhizae, fungi use numerous threadlike projections called mycelium that penetrate plant roots, forming colossal underground networks with nearby root systems. During this process fungi take up vital nutrients while protecting plant roots from infections – a win-win relationship. Consequently, the nano-neuroprosthetic has been named ‘endomyccorhizae ligand interface’, or ‘ELI’ for short.

The Spotlight article goes on to describe how these nanobots might function. As for the possibility of cognitive enhancement, I wonder if that might come to be described as a form of ‘artificial intelligence’.

(Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg are both from the Department of Anthropology, Ludwik Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy, Polish Academy of Sciences; and Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit, Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide. Abdul-Rahman Sawalma who’s listed as an author on the 2018 paper is from the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative, Al-Quds University, Beit Hanina, Palestine.)

Saniotis and Henneberg’s Spotlight article presents an optimistic view of neuroprosthetics. It seems telling that they cite cochlear implants as a success story when it is viewed by many as ethically fraught (see the Cochlear implant Wikipedia entry; scroll down to ‘Criticism and controversy’).

Ethics and your implants

This is from an April 6, 2015 article by Luc Henry on technologist.eu,

Technologist: What are the potential consequences of accepting the “augmented human” in society?

Gregor Wolbring: There are many that we might not even envision now. But let me focus on failure and obsolescence [emphasis mine], two issues that are rarely discussed. What happens when the mechanisms fails in the middle of an action? Failure has hazardous consequences, but obsolescence has psychological ones. …. The constant surgical inter­vention needed to update the hardware may not be feasible. A person might feel obsolete if she cohabits with others using a newer version.

T. Are researchers working on prosthetics sometimes disconnected from reality?

G. W. Students engaged in the development of prosthetics have to learn how to think in societal terms and develop a broader perspective. Our education system provides them with a fascination for clever solutions to technological challenges but not with tools aiming at understanding the consequences, such as whether their product might increase or decrease social justice.

Wolbring is a professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (profile page) who writes on social issues to do with human enhancement/ augmentation. As well,

Some of his areas of engagement are: ability studies including governance of ability expectations, disability studies, governance of emerging and existing sciences and technologies (e.g. nanoscale science and technology, molecular manufacturing, aging, longevity and immortality, cognitive sciences, neuromorphic engineering, genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, automatization, brain machine interfaces, sensors), impact of science and technology on marginalized populations, especially people with disabilities he governance of bodily enhancement, sustainability issues, EcoHealth, resilience, ethics issues, health policy issues, human rights and sport.

He also maintains his own website here.

Not just startups

I’d classify Second Sight as a tech startup company and they have a high rate of failure, which may not have been clear to the patients who had the implants. Clinical trials can present problems too as this excerpt from my September 17, 2020 posting notes,

This October 31, 2017 article by Emily Underwood for Science was revelatory,

“In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25 [emphases mine]. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

This month [October 2017], however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

… a tricky dilemma for companies and research teams involved in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research: If trial participants want to keep their implants [emphases mine], who will take responsibility—and pay—for their ongoing care? And participants in last week’s meeting said it underscores the need for the growing corps of DBS researchers to think long-term about their planned studies.”

Symbiosis can be another consequence, as mentioned in my September 17, 2020 posting,

From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Symbiosis is a term, borrowed from ecology, that means an intimate co-existence of two species for mutual advantage. As technologists work towards directly connecting the human brain to computers, it is increasingly being used to describe humans’ potential relationship with artificial intelligence. [emphasis mine]

It’s complicated

For a lot of people these devices are or could be life-changing. At the same time, there are a number of different issues related to implants/prosthetics; the following is not an exhaustive list. As Wolbring notes, issues that we can’t begin to imagine now are likely to emerge as these medical advances become more ubiquitous.


Assistive technologies are almost always portrayed as helpful. For example, a cochlear implant gives people without hearing the ability to hear. The assumption is that this is always a good thing—unless you’re a deaf person who wants to define the problem a little differently. Who gets to decide what is good and ‘normal’ and what is desirable?

While the cochlear implant is the most extreme example I can think of, there are variations of these questions throughout the ‘disability’ communities.

Also, as Wolbring notes in his interview with the Technologist.eu, the education system tends to favour technological solutions which don’t take social issues into account. Wolbring cites social justice issues when he mentions failure and obsolescence.

Technical failures and obsolescence

The story, excerpted earlier in this posting, opened with a striking example of a technical failure at an awkward moment; a blind woman depending on her retinal implant loses all sight as she maneuvers through a subway station in New York City.

Aside from being an awful way to find out the company supplying and supporting your implant is in serious financial trouble and can’t offer assistance or repair, the failure offers a preview of what could happen as implants and prosthetics become more commonly used.

Keeping up/fomo (fear of missing out)/obsolescence

It used to be called ‘keeping up with the Joneses, it’s the practice of comparing yourself and your worldly goods to someone else(‘s) and then trying to equal what they have or do better. Usually, people want to have more and better than the mythical Joneses.

These days, the phenomenon (which has been expanded to include social networking) is better known as ‘fomo’ or fear of missing out (see the Fear of missing out Wikipedia entry).

Whatever you want to call it, humanity’s competitive nature can be seen where technology is concerned. When I worked in technology companies, I noticed that hardware and software were sometimes purchased for features that were effectively useless to us. But, not upgrading to a newer version was unthinkable.

Call it fomo or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, it’s a powerful force and when people (and even companies) miss out or can’t keep up, it can lead to a sense of inferiority in the same way that having an obsolete implant or prosthetic could.

Social consequences

Could there be a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide? There is already a digital divide (from its Wikipedia entry),

The digital divide is a gap between those who have access to new technology and those who do not … people without access to the Internet and other ICTs [information and communication technologies] are at a socio-economic disadvantage because they are unable or less able to find and apply for jobs, shop and sell online, participate democratically, or research and learn.

After reading Wolbring’s comments, it’s not hard to imagine a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide with its attendant psychological and social consequences.

What kind of human am I?

There are other issues as noted in my September 17, 2020 posting. I’ve already mentioned ‘patient 6’, the woman who developed a symbiotic relationship with her brain/computer interface. This is how the relationship ended,

… He [Frederic Gilbert, ethicist] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

Above human

The possibility that implants will not merely restore or endow someone with ‘standard’ sight or hearing or motion or … but will augment or improve on nature was broached in this May 2, 2013 posting, More than human—a bionic ear that extends hearing beyond the usual frequencies and is one of many in the ‘Human Enhancement’ category on this blog.

More recently, Hugh Herr, an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), leader of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab, a double amputee, and prosthetic enthusiast, starred in the recent (February 23, 2022) broadcast of ‘Augmented‘ on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) science programme, Nova.

I found ‘Augmented’ a little offputting as it gave every indication of being an advertisement for Herr’s work in the form of a hero’s journey. I was not able to watch more than 10 mins. This preview gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like although the part in ‘Augmented, where he says he’d like to be a cyborg hasn’t been included,

At a guess, there were a few talking heads (taking up from 10%-20% of the running time) who provided some cautionary words to counterbalance the enthusiasm in the rest of the programme. It’s a standard approach designed to give the impression that both sides of a question are being recognized. The cautionary material is usually inserted past the 1/2 way mark while leaving several minutes at the end for returning to the more optimistic material.

In a February 2, 2010 posting I have excerpts from an article featuring quotes from Herr that I still find startling,

Written by Paul Hochman for Fast Company, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses [ETA March 23, 2022: an updated version of the article is now on Genius.com] delves further into the world where people may be willing to trade a healthy limb for a prosthetic. From the article,

There are many advantages to having your leg amputated.

Pedicure costs drop 50% overnight. A pair of socks lasts twice as long. But Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, goes a step further. “It’s actually unfair,” Herr says about amputees’ advantages over the able-bodied. “As tech advancements in prosthetics come along, amputees can exploit those improvements. They can get upgrades. A person with a natural body can’t.”

Herr is not the only one who favours prosthetics (also from the Hochman article),

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.”

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human.[emphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

My September 17, 2020 posting touches on more ethical and social issues including some of those surrounding consumer neurotechnologies or brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Unfortunately, I don’t have space for these issues here.

As for Paul Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, now on Genius.com, it has been updated.

Money makes the world go around

Money and business practices have been indirectly referenced (for the most part) up to now in this posting. The February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article and Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, cover two aspects of the money angle.

In the IEEE Spectrum article, a tech start-up company, Second Sight, ran into financial trouble and is acquired by a company that has no plans to develop Second Sight’s core technology. The people implanted with the Argus II technology have been stranded as were ‘patient 6’ and others participating in the clinical trial described in the July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain mentioned earlier in this posting.

I don’t know anything about the business bankruptcy mentioned in the Drew article but one of the business problems described in the IEEE Spectrum article suggests that Second Sight was founded before answering a basic question, “What is the market size for this product?”

On 18 July 2019, Second Sight sent Argus patients a letter saying it would be phasing out the retinal implant technology to clear the way for the development of its next-generation brain implant for blindness, Orion, which had begun a clinical trial with six patients the previous year. …

“The leadership at the time didn’t believe they could make [the Argus retinal implant] part of the business profitable,” Greenberg [Robert Greenberg, Second Sight co-founder] says. “I understood the decision, because I think the size of the market turned out to be smaller than we had thought.”


The question of whether a medical procedure or medicine can be profitable (or should the question be sufficiently profitable?) was referenced in my April 26, 2019 posting in the context of gene editing and personalized medicine

Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (US-based), advocates for personalized medicine while noting in passing, market forces as represented by Goldman Sachs in his May 23, 2018 piece for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Goldman Sachs, for example, issued a report titled “The Genome Revolution.” It argues that while “genome medicine” offers “tremendous value for patients and society,” curing patients may not be “a sustainable business model.” [emphasis mine] The analysis underlines that the health system is not set up to reap the benefits of new scientific discoveries and technologies. Just as we are on the precipice of an era in which gene therapies, gene-editing, and immunotherapies promise to address the root causes of disease, Goldman Sachs says that these therapies have a “very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.”

The ‘Glybera’ story in my July 4, 2019 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way) highlights the issue with “recurring revenue versus chronic therapies,”

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

“The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

Here’s my summary (from the July 4, 2019 posting),

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

For rich people only?

Megan Devlin’s March 8, 2022 article for the Daily Hive announces a major research investment into medical research (Note: A link has been removed),

Vancouver [Canada] billionaire Chip Wilson revealed Tuesday [March 8, 2022] that he has a rare genetic condition that causes his muscles to waste away, and announced he’s spending $100 million on research to find a cure.

His condition is called facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD for short. It progresses rapidly in some people and more slowly in others, but is characterized by progressive muscle weakness starting the the face, the neck, shoulders, and later the lower body.

“I’m out for survival of my own life,” Wilson said.

“I also have the resources to do something about this which affects so many people in the world.”

Wilson hopes the $100 million will produce a cure or muscle-regenerating treatment by 2027.

“This could be one of the biggest discoveries of all time, for humankind,” Wilson said. “Most people lose muscle, they fall, and they die. If we can keep muscle as we age this can be a longevity drug like we’ve never seen before.”

According to rarediseases.org, FSHD affects between four and 10 people out of every 100,000 [emphasis mine], Right now, therapies are limited to exercise and pain management. There is no way to stall or reverse the disease’s course.

Wilson is best known for founding athleisure clothing company Lululemon. He also owns the most expensive home in British Columbia, a $73 million mansion in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Let’s see what the numbers add up to,

4 – 10 people out of 100,000

40 – 100 people out of 1M

1200 – 3,000 people out of 30M (let’s say this is Canada’s population)\

12,000 – 30,000 people out of 300M (let’s say this is the US’s population)

42,000 – 105,000 out of 1.115B (let’s say this is China’s population)

The rough total comes to 55,200 to 138,000 people between three countries with a combined population total of 1.445B. Given how business currently operates, it seems unlikely that any company will want to offer Wilson’s hoped for medical therapy although he and possibly others may benefit from a clinical trial.

Should profit or wealth be considerations?

The stories about the patients with the implants and the patients who need Glybera are heartbreaking and point to a question not often asked when medical therapies and medications are developed. Is the profit model the best choice and, if so, how much profit?

I have no answer to that question but I wish it was asked by medical researchers and policy makers.

As for wealthy people dictating the direction for medical research, I don’t have answers there either. I hope the research will yield applications and/or valuable information for more than Wilson’s disease.

It’s his money after all

Wilson calls his new venture, SolveFSHD. It doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any university or biomedical science organization and it’s not clear how the money will be awarded (no programmes, no application procedure, no panel of experts). There are three people on the team, Eva R. Chin, scientist and executive director, Chip Wilson, SolveFSHD founder/funder, and FSHD patient, and Neil Camarta, engineer, executive (fossil fuels and clean energy), and FSHD patient. There’s also a Twitter feed (presumably for the latest updates): https://twitter.com/SOLVEFSHD.

Perhaps unrelated but intriguing is news about a proposed new building in Kenneth Chan’s March 31, 2022 article for the Daily Hive,

Low Tide Properties, the real estate arm of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson [emphasis mine], has submitted a new development permit application to build a 148-ft-tall, eight-storey, mixed-use commercial building in the False Creek Flats of Vancouver.

The proposal, designed by local architectural firm Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, calls for 236,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 105,000 sq ft of general office space, 102,000 sq ft of laboratory space [emphasis mine], and 5,000 sq ft of ground-level retail space. An outdoor amenity space for building workers will be provided on the rooftop.

[next door] The 2001-built, five-storey building at 1618 Station Street immediately to the west of the development site is also owned by Low Tide Properties [emphasis mine]. The Ferguson, the name of the existing building, contains about 79,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 47,000 sq ft of laboratory space and 32,000 sq ft of general office space. Biotechnology company Stemcell technologies [STEMCELL] Technologies] is the anchor tenant [emphasis mine].

I wonder if this proposed new building will house SolveFSHD and perhaps other FSHD-focused enterprises. The proximity of STEMCELL Technologies could be quite convenient. In any event, $100M will buy a lot (pun intended).

The end

Issues I’ve described here in the context of neural implants/neuroprosthetics and cutting edge medical advances are standard problems not specific to these technologies/treatments:

  • What happens when the technology fails (hopefully not at a critical moment)?
  • What happens when your supplier goes out of business or discontinues the products you purchase from them?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Who can afford the treatment/product? Will it only be for rich people?
  • Will this technology/procedure/etc. exacerbate or create new social tensions between social classes, cultural groups, religious groups, races, etc.?

Of course, having your neural implant fail suddenly in the middle of a New York City subway station seems a substantively different experience than having your car break down on the road.

There are, of course, there are the issues we can’t yet envision (as Wolbring notes) and there are issues such as symbiotic relationships with our implants and/or feeling that you are “above human.” Whether symbiosis and ‘implant/prosthetic superiority’ will affect more than a small number of people or become major issues is still to be determined.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about where new medical research and advances are concerned but I would like to see more thoughtful coverage in the media (e.g., news programmes and documentaries like ‘Augmented’) and more thoughtful comments from medical researchers.

Of course, the biggest issue I’ve raised here is about the current business models for health care products where profit is valued over people’s health and well-being. it’s a big question and I don’t see any definitive answers but the question put me in mind of this quote (from a September 22, 2020 obituary for US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irene Monroe for Curve),

Ginsburg’s advocacy for justice was unwavering and showed it, especially with each oral dissent. In another oral dissent, Ginsburg quoted a familiar Martin Luther King Jr. line, adding her coda:” ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” …

Martin Luther King Jr. popularized and paraphrased the quote (from a January 18, 2018 article by Mychal Denzel Smith for Huffington Post),

His use of the quote is best understood by considering his source material. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I choose to keep faith that people will get the healthcare products they need and that all of us need to keep working at making access more fair.

The coolest paint

It’s the ‘est’ of it all. The coolest, the whitest, the blackest … Scientists and artists are both pursuing the ‘est’. (More about the pursuit later in this posting.)

In this case, scientists have developed the coolest, whitest paint yet. From an April 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.

In October [2020], the team created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. Now they’ve outdone that. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.

“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

Caption: Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike

This is nicely done. Researcher Xiulin Ruan is standing close to a structure that could be said to resemble the sun while in shirtsleeves and sunglasses and holding up a sample of his whitest paint in April (not usually a warm month in Indiana).

An April 15, 2021 Purdue University news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work and hints about its commercial applications both civilian and military,

The researchers believe that this white may be the closest equivalent of the blackest black, “Vantablack,” [emphasis mine; see comments later in this post] which absorbs up to 99.9% of visible light. The new whitest paint formulation reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight – compared with the 95.5% of sunlight reflected by the researchers’ previous ultra-white paint – and sends infrared heat away from a surface at the same time.

Typical commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler. Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings.

The team’s research paper showing how the paint works publishes Thursday (April 15 [2021]) as the cover of the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What makes the whitest paint so white

Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate [emphasis mine] which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.

“We looked at various commercial products, basically anything that’s white,” said Xiangyu Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on this project as a Purdue Ph.D. student in Ruan’s lab. “We found that using barium sulfate, you can theoretically make things really, really reflective, which means that they’re really, really white.”

The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.

“A high concentration of particles that are also different sizes gives the paint the broadest spectral scattering, which contributes to the highest reflectance,” said Joseph Peoples, a Purdue Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

There is a little bit of room to make the paint whiter, but not much without compromising the paint.”Although a higher particle concentration is better for making something white, you can’t increase the concentration too much. The higher the concentration, the easier it is for the paint to break or peel off,” Li said.

How the whitest paint is also the coolest

The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.

The paint’s solar reflectance is so effective, it even worked in the middle of winter. During an outdoor test with an ambient temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the paint still managed to lower the sample temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

This white paint is the result of six years of research building on attempts going back to the 1970s to develop radiative cooling paint as a feasible alternative to traditional air conditioners.

Ruan’s lab had considered over 100 different materials, narrowed them down to 10 and tested about 50 different formulations for each material. Their previous whitest paint was a formulation made of calcium carbonate, an earth-abundant compound commonly found in rocks and seashells.

The researchers showed in their study that like commercial paint, their barium sulfate-based paint can potentially handle outdoor conditions. The technique that the researchers used to create the paint also is compatible with the commercial paint fabrication process.

Patent applications for this paint formulation have been filed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. This research was supported by the Cooling Technologies Research Center at Purdue University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [emphasis mine] through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (Grant No.427 FA9550-17-1-0368). The research was performed at Purdue’s FLEX Lab and Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Birck Nanotechnology Center of Purdue’s Discovery Park.

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

Ultrawhite BaSO4 Paints and Films for Remarkable Daytime Subambient Radiative Cooling by Xiangyu Li, Joseph Peoples, Peiyan Yao, and Xiulin Ruan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.1c02368 Publication Date:April 15, 2021 © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vantablack and the ongoing ‘est’ of blackest

Vantablack’s 99.9% light absorption no longer qualifies it for the ‘blackest black’. A newer standard for the ‘blackest black’ was set by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at 99.99% light absorption with its N.I.S.T. ultra-black in 2019, although that too seems to have been bested.

I have three postings covering the Vantablack and blackest black story,

The third posting (December 2019) provides a brief summary of the story along with what was the latest from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. There’s also a little bit about the ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ an art piece demonstrating the blackest black material from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they state has 99.995% (at least) absorption of light.

From a science perspective, the blackest black would be useful for space exploration.

I am surprised there doesn’t seem to have been an artistic rush to work with the whitest white. That impression may be due to the fact that the feuds get more attention than quiet work.

Dark side to the whitest white?

Andrew Parnell, research fellow in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield (UK), mentions a downside to obtaining the material needed to produce this cooling white paint in a June 10, 2021 essay on The Conversation (h/t Fast Company), Note: Links have been removed,

… this whiter-than-white paint has a darker side. The energy required to dig up raw barite ore to produce and process the barium sulphite that makes up nearly 60% of the paint means it has a huge carbon footprint. And using the paint widely would mean a dramatic increase in the mining of barium.

Parnell ends his essay with this (Note: Links have been removed),

Barium sulphite-based paint is just one way to improve the reflectivity of buildings. I’ve spent the last few years researching the colour white in the natural world, from white surfaces to white animals. Animal hairs, feathers and butterfly wings provide different examples of how nature regulates temperature within a structure. Mimicking these natural techniques could help to keep our cities cooler with less cost to the environment.

The wings of one intensely white beetle species called Lepidiota stigma appear a strikingly bright white thanks to nanostructures in their scales, which are very good at scattering incoming light. This natural light-scattering property can be used to design even better paints: for example, by using recycled plastic to create white paint containing similar nanostructures with a far lower carbon footprint. When it comes to taking inspiration from nature, the sky’s the limit.

A lobster’s stretch and strength in a hydrogel

An MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly, the toughest known hydrogel found in nature. Credits: Courtesy of the researchers

I love this lobster. In most photos, they’re food. This shows off the lobster as a living entity while showcasing its underbelly, which is what this story is all about. From an April 23, 2021 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

A lobster’s underbelly is lined with a thin, translucent membrane that is both stretchy and surprisingly tough. This marine under-armor, as MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] engineers reported in 2019, is made from the toughest known hydrogel in nature, which also happens to be highly flexible. This combination of strength and stretch helps shield a lobster as it scrabbles across the seafloor, while also allowing it to flex back and forth to swim.

Now a separate MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly. The researchers ran the material through a battery of stretch and impact tests, and showed that, similar to the lobster underbelly, the synthetic material is remarkably “fatigue-resistant,” able to withstand repeated stretches and strains without tearing.

If the fabrication process could be significantly scaled up, materials made from nanofibrous hydrogels could be used to make stretchy and strong replacement tissues such as artificial tendons and ligaments.

The team’s results are published in the journal Matter. The paper’s MIT co-authors include postdocs Jiahua Ni and Shaoting Lin; graduate students Xinyue Liu and Yuchen Sun; professor of aeronautics and astronautics Raul Radovitzky; professor of chemistry Keith Nelson; mechanical engineering professor Xuanhe Zhao; and former research scientist David Veysset Ph.D. ’16, now at Stanford University; along with Zhao Qin, assistant professor at Syracuse University, and Alex Hsieh of the Army Research Laboratory.

An April 23, 2021 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, offers an overview of the groundwork for this latest research along with technical detail about the latest work,

Nature’s twist

In 2019, Lin and other members of Zhao’s group developed a new kind of fatigue-resistant material made from hydrogel — a gelatin-like class of materials made primarily of water and cross-linked polymers. They fabricated the material from ultrathin fibers of hydrogel, which aligned like many strands of gathered straw when the material was repeatedly stretched. This workout also happened to increase the hydrogel’s fatigue resistance.

“At that moment, we had a feeling nanofibers in hydrogels were important, and hoped to manipulate the fibril structures so that we could optimize fatigue resistance,” says Lin.

In their new study, the researchers combined a number of techniques to create stronger hydrogel nanofibers. The process starts with electrospinning, a fiber production technique that uses electric charges to draw ultrathin threads out of polymer solutions. The team used high-voltage charges to spin nanofibers from a polymer solution, to form a flat film of nanofibers, each measuring about 800 nanometers — a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.

They placed the film in a high-humidity chamber to weld the individual fibers into a sturdy, interconnected network, and then set the film in an incubator to crystallize the individual nanofibers at high temperatures, further strengthening the material.

They tested the film’s fatigue-resistance by placing it in a machine that stretched it repeatedly over tens of thousands of cycles. They also made notches in some films and observed how the cracks propagated as the films were stretched repeatedly. From these tests, they calculated that the nanofibrous films were 50 times more fatigue-resistant than the conventional nanofibrous hydrogels.

Around this time, they read with interest a study by Ming Guo, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who characterized the mechanical properties of a lobster’s underbelly. This protective membrane is made from thin sheets of chitin, a natural, fibrous material that is similar in makeup to the group’s hydrogel nanofibers.

Guo found that a cross-section of the lobster membrane revealed sheets of chitin stacked at 36-degree angles, similar to twisted plywood, or a spiral staircase. This rotating, layered configuration, known as a bouligand structure, enhanced the membrane’s properties of stretch and strength.

“We learned that this bouligand structure in the lobster underbelly has high mechanical performance, which motivated us to see if we could reproduce such structures in synthetic materials,” Lin says.

Angled architecture

Ni, Lin, and members of Zhao’s group teamed up with Nelson’s lab and Radovitzky’s group in MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Qin’s lab at Syracuse University, to see if they could reproduce the lobster’s bouligand membrane structure using their synthetic, fatigue-resistant films.

“We prepared aligned nanofibers by electrospinning to mimic the chinic fibers existed in the lobster underbelly,” Ni says.

After electrospinning nanofibrous films, the researchers stacked each of five films in successive, 36-degree angles to form a single bouligand structure, which they then welded and crystallized to fortify the material. The final product measured 9 square centimeters and about 30 to 40 microns thick — about the size of a small piece of Scotch tape.

Stretch tests showed that the lobster-inspired material performed similarly to its natural counterpart, able to stretch repeatedly while resisting tears and cracks — a fatigue-resistance Lin attributes to the structure’s angled architecture.

“Intuitively, once a crack in the material propagates through one layer, it’s impeded by adjacent layers, where fibers are aligned at different angles,” Lin explains.

The team also subjected the material to microballistic impact tests with an experiment designed by Nelson’s group. They imaged the material as they shot it with microparticles at high velocity, and measured the particles’ speed before and after tearing through the material. The difference in velocity gave them a direct measurement of the material’s impact resistance, or the amount of energy it can absorb, which turned out to be a surprisingly tough 40 kilojoules per kilogram. This number is measured in the hydrated state.

“That means that a 5-millimeter steel ball launched at 200 meters per second would be arrested by 13 millimeters of the material,” Veysset says. “It is not as resistant as Kevlar, which would require 1 millimeter, but the material beats Kevlar in many other categories.”

It’s no surprise that the new material isn’t as tough as commercial antiballistic materials. It is, however, significantly sturdier than most other nanofibrous hydrogels such as gelatin and synthetic polymers like PVA. The material is also much stretchier than Kevlar. This combination of stretch and strength suggests that, if their fabrication can be sped up, and more films stacked in bouligand structures, nanofibrous hydrogels may serve as flexible and tough artificial tissues.

“For a hydrogel material to be a load-bearing artificial tissue, both strength and deformability are required,” Lin says. “Our material design could achieve these two properties.”

If you have the time and the interest, do check out the April 23, 2021 MIT news release, which features a couple of informative GIFs.

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

Strong fatigue-resistant nanofibrous hydrogels inspired by lobster underbelly by Jiahua Ni, Shaoting Lin, Zhao Qin, David Veysset, Xinyue Liu, Yuchen Sun, Alex J. Hsieh, Raul Radovitzky, Keith A. Nelson, Xuanhe Zhao. Matter, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.matt.2021.03.023 Published April 23, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cambridge Science Festival April 2021: 30 Days of Science

First, this Cambridge is in Massachusetts, US. The US festival was started in 2007 by John Durant, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Museum (see the MIT Museum Wikipedia entry for more information).

There’s also this from the Cambridge Science Festival website About Us webpage,

The Cambridge Science Festival, the first of its kind in the United States, is a celebration showcasing the leading edge in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).  A multifaceted, multicultural event, the Festival makes science accessible, interactive and fun, highlighting the impact of STEAM in all our lives.

For the 2021 Festival, recognizing social distancing will be in place as we begin to emerge from the pandemic,  we will celebrate STEAM in our community with an overarching theme of gratitude and appreciation. During the month of April 2021, we will showcase creative digital and virtual entries from our rich STEAM community, and celebrate with public displays of appreciation and gratitude. Stay tuned and get involved!

Modeled on art, music, and movie festivals, the Cambridge Science Festival offers activities, demonstrations, workshops, tours, debates, contests, talks, and behind-the-scene glimpses to illuminate the richness of scientific inquiry and the excitement of discovery.

The 2021 festival is offering the 30 Days of Science Challenge!

This year, Cambridge Science Festival is celebrating science for the entire month of April. Join us!

Our challenge to you: 30 Days of Science.

Each day, we’ll share a simple prompt with content and events developed exclusively by the Cambridge Science Festival community. Spend a few minutes a day exploring the offerings, connecting with cool scientists, & learning new things!

Or choose your own adventure! Want to learn about a new native bird each day? Maybe perfect your daily coffee routine with science? Ready to learn about 30 exoplanets?

We want to learn with you. We’re here to keep you accountable & cheer you on. Take the pledge — share your discoveries, fun facts, & new questions with us through #30DaysofScience.

Let’s get nerdy!

I’m In

The 2021 (US) Cambridge Science Festival starting April 1 has its website here and the 2021 (UK) Cambridge Science Festival 26 March to April 4 has its here.

h/t: @ArtBioCollab (Twitter) for their tweet about the (US) Cambridge Science Festival. You can also find their website here.

Food sensor made from of silk microneedles looks like velco

These sensors really do look like velcro,

The Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, can pierce through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination. Image: Felice Frankel

A September 9, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some research from the Massachusetts Institute (MIT),

MIT engineers have designed a Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, that pierces through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination.

The sensor’s microneedles are molded from a solution of edible proteins found in silk cocoons, and are designed to draw fluid into the back of the sensor, which is printed with two types of specialized ink. One of these “bioinks” changes color when in contact with fluid of a certain pH range, indicating that the food has spoiled; the other turns color when it senses contaminating bacteria such as pathogenic E. coli.

A Sept. 9, 2020 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

The researchers attached the sensor to a fillet of raw fish that they had injected with a solution contaminated with E. coli. After less than a day, they found that the part of the sensor that was printed with bacteria-sensing bioink turned from blue to red — a clear sign that the fish was contaminated. After a few more hours, the pH-sensitive bioink also changed color, signaling that the fish had also spoiled.

The results, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, are a first step toward developing a new colorimetric sensor that can detect signs of food spoilage and contamination.

Such smart food sensors might help head off outbreaks such as the recent salmonella contamination in onions and peaches. They could also prevent consumers from throwing out food that may be past a printed expiration date, but is in fact still consumable.

“There is a lot of food that’s wasted due to lack of proper labeling, and we’re throwing food away without even knowing if it’s spoiled or not,” says Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “People also waste a lot of food after outbreaks, because they’re not sure if the food is actually contaminated or not. A technology like this would give confidence to the end user to not waste food.”

Marelli’s co-authors on the paper are Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., and A. John Hart.

Silk and printing

The new food sensor is the product of a collaboration between Marelli, whose lab harnesses the properties of silk to develop new technologies, and Hart, whose group develops new manufacturing processes.

Hart recently developed a high-resolution floxography technique, realizing microscopic patterns that can enable low-cost printed electronics and sensors. Meanwhile, Marelli had developed a silk-based microneedle stamp that penetrates and delivers nutrients to plants. In conversation, the researchers wondered whether their technologies could be paired to produce a printed food sensor that monitors food safety.

“Assessing the health of food by just measuring its surface is often not good enough. At some point, Benedetto mentioned his group’s microneedle work with plants, and we realized that we could combine our expertise to make a more effective sensor,” Hart recalls.

The team looked to create a sensor that could pierce through the surface of many types of food. The design they came up with consisted of an array of microneedles made from silk.

“Silk is completely edible, nontoxic, and can be used as a food ingredient, and it’s mechanically robust enough to penetrate through a large spectrum of tissue types, like meat, peaches, and lettuce,” Marelli says.

A deeper detection

To make the new sensor, Kim first made a solution of silk fibroin, a protein extracted from moth cocoons, and poured the solution into a silicone microneedle mold. After drying, he peeled away the resulting array of microneedles, each measuring about 1.6 millimeters long and 600 microns wide — about one-third the diameter of a spaghetti strand.

The team then developed solutions for two kinds of bioink — color-changing printable polymers that can be mixed with other sensing ingredients. In this case, the researchers mixed into one bioink an antibody that is sensitive to a molecule in E. coli. When the antibody comes in contact with that molecule, it changes shape and physically pushes on the surrounding polymer, which in turn changes the way the bioink absorbs light. In this way, the bioink can change color when it senses contaminating bacteria.

The researchers made a bioink containing antibodies sensitive to E. coli, and a second bioink sensitive to pH levels that are associated with spoilage. They printed the bacteria-sensing bioink on the surface of the microneedle array, in the pattern of the letter “E,” next to which they printed the pH-sensitive bioink, as a “C.” Both letters initially appeared blue in color.

Kim then embedded pores within each microneedle to increase the array’s ability to draw up fluid via capillary action. To test the new sensor, he bought several fillets of raw fish from a local grocery store and injected each fillet with a fluid containing either E. coli, Salmonella, or the fluid without any contaminants. He stuck a sensor into each fillet. Then, he waited.

After about 16 hours, the team observed that the “E” turned from blue to red, only in the fillet contaminated with E. coli, indicating that the sensor accurately detected the bacterial antigens. After several more hours, both the “C” and “E” in all samples turned red, indicating that every fillet had spoiled.

The researchers also found their new sensor indicates contamination and spoilage faster than existing sensors that only detect pathogens on the surface of foods.

“There are many cavities and holes in food where pathogens are embedded, and surface sensors cannot detect these,” Kim says. “So we have to plug in a bit deeper to improve the reliability of the detection. Using this piercing technique, we also don’t have to open a package to inspect food quality.”

The team is looking for ways to speed up the microneedles’ absorption of fluid, as well as the bioinks’ sensing of contaminants. Once the design is optimized, they envision the sensor could be used at various stages along the supply chain, from operators in processing plants, who can use the sensors to monitor products before they are shipped out, to consumers who may choose to apply the sensors on certain foods to make sure they are safe to eat.

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

A Microneedle Technology for Sampling and Sensing Bacteria in the Food Supply Chain by Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., A. John Hart, Benedetto Marelli. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202005370 First published: 09 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can get the Program in PDF.

Registration is free. But you must Register.

Here’s the event poster,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interestingly, the NCE is being phased out,

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

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

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

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

NFRF is composed of three streams to support groundbreaking research.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energy-efficient artificial synapse

This is the second neuromorphic computing chip story from MIT this summer in what has turned out to be a bumper crop of research announcements in this field. The first MIT synapse story was featured in a June 16, 2020 posting. Now, there’s a second and completely different team announcing results for their artificial brain synapse work in a June 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Teams around the world are building ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems of a type called neural networks, designed in some ways to mimic the wiring of the brain, for carrying out tasks such as computer vision and natural language processing.

Using state-of-the-art semiconductor circuits to simulate neural networks requires large amounts of memory and high power consumption. Now, an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] team has made strides toward an alternative system, which uses physical, analog devices that can much more efficiently mimic brain processes.

The findings are described in the journal Nature Communications (“Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks”), in a paper by MIT professors Bilge Yildiz, Ju Li, and Jesús del Alamo, and nine others at MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The first author of the paper is Xiahui Yao, a former MIT postdoc now working on energy storage at GRU Energy Lab.

That description of the work is one pretty much every team working on developing memristive (neuromorphic) chips could use.

On other fronts, the team has produced a very attractive illustration accompanying this research (aside: Is it my imagination or has there been a serious investment in the colour pink and other pastels for science illustrations?),

A new system developed at MIT and Brookhaven National Lab could provide a faster, more reliable and much more energy efficient approach to physical neural networks, by using analog ionic-electronic devices to mimic synapses.. Courtesy of the researchers

A June 19, 2020 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more insight into this specific piece of research (hint: it’s about energy use and repeatability),

Neural networks attempt to simulate the way learning takes place in the brain, which is based on the gradual strengthening or weakening of the connections between neurons, known as synapses. The core component of this physical neural network is the resistive switch, whose electronic conductance can be controlled electrically. This control, or modulation, emulates the strengthening and weakening of synapses in the brain.

In neural networks using conventional silicon microchip technology, the simulation of these synapses is a very energy-intensive process. To improve efficiency and enable more ambitious neural network goals, researchers in recent years have been exploring a number of physical devices that could more directly mimic the way synapses gradually strengthen and weaken during learning and forgetting.

Most candidate analog resistive devices so far for such simulated synapses have either been very inefficient, in terms of energy use, or performed inconsistently from one device to another or one cycle to the next. The new system, the researchers say, overcomes both of these challenges. “We’re addressing not only the energy challenge, but also the repeatability-related challenge that is pervasive in some of the existing concepts out there,” says Yildiz, who is a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering.

“I think the bottleneck today for building [neural network] applications is energy efficiency. It just takes too much energy to train these systems, particularly for applications on the edge, like autonomous cars,” says del Alamo, who is the Donner Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Many such demanding applications are simply not feasible with today’s technology, he adds.

The resistive switch in this work is an electrochemical device, which is made of tungsten trioxide (WO3) and works in a way similar to the charging and discharging of batteries. Ions, in this case protons, can migrate into or out of the crystalline lattice of the material,  explains Yildiz, depending on the polarity and strength of an applied voltage. These changes remain in place until altered by a reverse applied voltage — just as the strengthening or weakening of synapses does.

The mechanism is similar to the doping of semiconductors,” says Li, who is also a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering. In that process, the conductivity of silicon can be changed by many orders of magnitude by introducing foreign ions into the silicon lattice. “Traditionally those ions were implanted at the factory,” he says, but with the new device, the ions are pumped in and out of the lattice in a dynamic, ongoing process. The researchers can control how much of the “dopant” ions go in or out by controlling the voltage, and “we’ve demonstrated a very good repeatability and energy efficiency,” he says.

Yildiz adds that this process is “very similar to how the synapses of the biological brain work. There, we’re not working with protons, but with other ions such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, etc., and by moving those ions you actually change the resistance of the synapses, and that is an element of learning.” The process taking place in the tungsten trioxide in their device is similar to the resistance modulation taking place in biological synapses, she says.

“What we have demonstrated here,” Yildiz says, “even though it’s not an optimized device, gets to the order of energy consumption per unit area per unit change in conductance that’s close to that in the brain.” Trying to accomplish the same task with conventional CMOS type semiconductors would take a million times more energy, she says.

The materials used in the demonstration of the new device were chosen for their compatibility with present semiconductor manufacturing systems, according to Li. But they include a polymer material that limits the device’s tolerance for heat, so the team is still searching for other variations of the device’s proton-conducting membrane and better ways of encapsulating its hydrogen source for long-term operations.

“There’s a lot of fundamental research to be done at the materials level for this device,” Yildiz says. Ongoing research will include “work on how to integrate these devices with existing CMOS transistors” adds del Alamo. “All that takes time,” he says, “and it presents tremendous opportunities for innovation, great opportunities for our students to launch their careers.”

Coincidentally or not a University of Massachusetts at Amherst team announced memristor voltage use comparable to human brain voltage use (see my June 15, 2020 posting), plus, there’s a team at Stanford University touting their low-energy biohybrid synapse in a XXX posting. (June 2020 has been a particularly busy month here for ‘artificial brain’ or ‘memristor’ stories.)

Getting back to this latest MIT research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks by Xiahui Yao, Konstantin Klyukin, Wenjie Lu, Murat Onen, Seungchan Ryu, Dongha Kim, Nicolas Emond, Iradwikanari Waluyo, Adrian Hunt, Jesús A. del Alamo, Ju Li & Bilge Yildiz. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3134 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16866-6 Published: 19 June 2020

This paper is open access.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives first authorization for CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) use in COVID-19 crisis

Clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing has been largely confined to laboratory use or tested in agricultural trials. I believe that is true worldwide excepting the CRISPR twin scandal. (There are numerous postings about the CRISPR twins here including a Nov. 28, 2018 post, a May 17, 2019 post, and a June 20, 2019 post. Update: It was reported (3rd. para.) in December 2019 that He had been sentenced to three years jail time.)

Connie Lin in a May 7, 2020 article for Fast Company reports on this surprising decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Note: A link has been removed),

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted Emergency Use Authorization to a COVID-19 test that uses controversial gene-editing technology CRISPR.

This marks the first time CRISPR has been authorized by the FDA, although only for the purpose of detecting the coronavirus, and not for its far more contentious applications. The new test kit, developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Sherlock Biosciences, will be deployed in laboratories certified to carry out high-complexity procedures and is “rapid,” returning results in about an hour as opposed to those that rely on the standard polymerase chain reaction method, which typically requires six hours.

The announcement was made in the FDA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: May 7, 2020 Daily Roundup (4th item in the bulleted list), Or, you can read the May 6, 2020 letter (PDF) sent to John Vozella of Sherlock Biosciences by the FDA.

As well, there’s the May 7, 2020 Sherlock BioSciences news release (the most informative of the lot),

Sherlock Biosciences, an Engineering Biology company dedicated to making diagnostic testing better, faster and more affordable, today announced the company has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 kit for the detection of the virus that causes COVID-19, providing results in approximately one hour.

“While it has only been a little over a year since the launch of Sherlock Biosciences, today we have made history with the very first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR technology, which will be used to rapidly identify the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Rahul Dhanda, co-founder, president and CEO of Sherlock Biosciences. “We are committed to providing this initial wave of testing kits to physicians, laboratory experts and researchers worldwide to enable them to assist frontline workers leading the charge against this pandemic.”

The Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 test kit is designed for use in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA), 42 U.S.C. §263a, to perform high complexity tests. Based on the SHERLOCK method, which stands for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, the kit works by programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature – in this case, the genetic signature for SARS-CoV-2 – in a nasal swab, nasopharyngeal swab, oropharyngeal swab or bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) specimen. When the signature is found, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a detectable signal. In addition to SHERLOCK, the company is also developing its INSPECTR™ platform to create an instrument-free, handheld test – similar to that of an at-home pregnancy test – that utilizes Sherlock Biosciences’ Synthetic Biology platform to provide rapid detection of a genetic match of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“When our lab collaborated with Dr. Feng Zhang’s team to develop SHERLOCK, we believed that this CRISPR-based diagnostic method would have a significant impact on global health,” said James J. Collins, co-founder and board member of Sherlock Biosciences and Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science for MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “During what is a major healthcare crisis across the globe, we are heartened that the first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR will aid in the fight against this global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Access to rapid diagnostics is critical for combating this pandemic and is a primary focus for Sherlock Biosciences co-founder and board member, David R. Walt, Ph.D., who co-leads the Mass [Massachusetts] General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation.

“SHERLOCK enables rapid identification of a single alteration in a DNA or RNA sequence in a single molecule,” said Dr. Walt. “That precision, coupled with its capability to be deployed to multiplex over 100 targets or as a simple point-of-care system, will make it a critical addition to the arsenal of rapid diagnostics already being used to detect COVID-19.”

This development is particularly interesting since there was a major intellectual property dispute over CRISPR between the Broad Institute (a Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] joint initiative), and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). The Broad Institute mostly won in the first round of the patent fight, as I noted in a March 15, 2017 post but, as far as I’m aware, UC Berkeley is still disputing that decision.

In the period before receiving authorization, it appears that Sherlock Biosciences was doing a little public relations and ‘consciousness raising’ work. Here’s a sample from a May 5, 2020 article by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

The revolutionary genetic technique better known for its potential to cure thousands of inherited diseases could also solve the challenge of Covid-19 diagnostic testing, scientists announced on Tuesday. A team headed by biologist Feng Zhang of the McGovern Institute at MIT and the Broad Institute has repurposed the genome-editing tool CRISPR into a test able to quickly detect as few as 100 coronavirus particles in a swab or saliva sample.

Crucially, the technique, dubbed a “one pot” protocol, works in a single test tube and does not require the many specialty chemicals, or reagents, whose shortage has hampered the rollout of widespread Covid-19 testing in the U.S. It takes about an hour to get results, requires minimal handling, and in preliminary studies has been highly accurate, Zhang told STAT. He and his colleagues, led by the McGovern’s Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, released the protocol on their STOPCovid.science website.

Because the test has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it is only for research purposes for now. But minutes before speaking to STAT on Monday, Zhang and his colleagues were on a conference call with FDA officials about what they needed to do to receive an “emergency use authorization” that would allow clinical use of the test. The FDA has used EUAs to fast-track Covid-19 diagnostics as well as experimental therapies, including remdesivir, after less extensive testing than usually required.

For an EUA, the agency will require the scientists to validate the test, which they call STOPCovid, on dozens to hundreds of samples. Although “it is still early in the process,” Zhang said, he and his colleagues are confident enough in its accuracy that they are conferring with potential commercial partners who could turn the test into a cartridge-like device, similar to a pregnancy test, enabling Covid-19 testing at doctor offices and other point-of-care sites.

“It could potentially even be used at home or at workplaces,” Zhang said. “It’s inexpensive, does not require a lab, and can return results within an hour using a paper strip, not unlike a pregnancy test. This helps address the urgent need for widespread, accurate, inexpensive, and accessible Covid-19 testing.” Public health experts say the availability of such a test is one of the keys to safely reopening society, which will require widespread testing, and then tracing and possibly isolating the contacts of those who test positive.

If you have time, do read Begley’s in full.

More of the ‘blackest black’

There’s a very good November 11, 2019 article by Natalie Angier for the New York Times on carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and the colour black,

On a laboratory bench at the National Institute of Standards and Technology was a square tray with two black disks inside, each about the width of the top of a Dixie cup. Both disks were undeniably black, yet they didn’t look quite the same.

Solomon Woods, 49, a trim, dark-haired, soft-spoken physicist, was about to demonstrate how different they were, and how serenely voracious a black could be.

“The human eye is extraordinarily sensitive to light,” Dr. Woods said. Throw a few dozen photons its way, a few dozen quantum-sized packets of light, and the eye can readily track them.

Dr. Woods pulled a laser pointer from his pocket. “This pointer,” he said, “puts out 100 trillion photons per second.” He switched on the laser and began slowly sweeping its bright beam across the surface of the tray.

On hitting the white background, the light bounced back almost unimpeded, as rude as a glaring headlight in a rearview mirror.

The beam moved to the first black disk, a rondel of engineered carbon now more than a decade old. The light dimmed significantly, as a sizable tranche of the incident photons were absorbed by the black pigment, yet the glow remained surprisingly strong.

Finally Dr. Woods trained his pointer on the second black disk, and suddenly the laser’s brilliant beam, its brash photonic probe, simply — disappeared. Trillions of light particles were striking the black disk, and virtually none were winking back up again. It was like watching a circus performer swallow a sword, or a husband “share” your plate of French fries: Hey, where did it all go?

N.I.S.T. disk number two was an example of advanced ultra-black technology: elaborately engineered arrays of tiny carbon cylinders, or nanotubes, designed to capture and muzzle any light they encounter. Blacker is the new black, and researchers here and abroad are working to create ever more efficient light traps, which means fabricating materials that look ever darker, ever flatter, ever more ripped from the void.

The N.I.S.T. ultra-black absorbs at least 99.99 percent of the light that stumbles into its nanotube forest. But scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in September the creation of a carbon nanotube coating that they claim captures better than 99.995 of the incident light.

… The more fastidious and reliable the ultra-black, the more broadly useful it will prove to be — in solar power generators, radiometers, industrial baffles and telescopes primed to detect the faintest light fluxes as a distant planet traverses the face of its star.

Psychology and metaphors

It’s not all technical, Angier goes on to mention the psychological and metaphorical aspects,

Psychologists have gathered evidence that black is among the most metaphorically loaded of all colors, and that we absorb our often contradictory impressions about black at a young age.

Reporting earlier this year in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Robin Kramer and Joanne Prior of the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom compared color associations in a group of 104 children, aged 5 to 10, with those of 100 university students.

The researchers showed subjects drawings in which a lineup of six otherwise identical images differed only in some aspect of color. The T-shirt of a boy taking a test, for example, was switched from black to blue to green to red to white to yellow. The same for a businessman’s necktie, a schoolgirl’s dress, a dog’s collar, a boxer’s gloves.

Participants were asked to link images with traits. Which boy was likeliest to cheat on the test? Which man was likely to be in charge at work? Which girl was the smartest in her class, which dog the scariest?

Again and again, among both children and young adults, black pulled ahead of nearly every color but red. Black was the color of cheating, and black was the color of cleverness. A black tie was the mark of a boss, a black collar the sign of a pit bull. Black was the color of strength and of winning. Black was the color of rage.


Then, there is the world of art,

For artists, black is basal and nonnegotiable, the source of shadow, line, volume, perspective and mood. “There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh,” Ad Reinhardt, the abstract expressionist artist, said. “Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.”

So essential is black to any aesthetic act that, as David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing describe in their scholarly yet highly entertaining book, “On Color,” modern artists have long squabbled over who pioneered the ultimate visual distillation: the all-black painting.

Was it the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, who in 1918 created a series of eight seemingly all-black canvases? No, insisted the American artist Barnett Newman: Those works were very dark brown, not black. He, Mr. Newman, deserved credit for his 1949 opus, “Abraham,” which in 1966 he described as “the first and still the only black painting in history.”

But what about Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” of 1915? True, it was a black square against a white background, but the black part was the point. Then again, the English polymath Robert Fludd had engraved a black square in a white border back in 1617.

Clearly, said Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, “Each generation must paint its own black square.”

Structural colour

Solomon and his NIST colleagues and the MIT scientists are all trying to create materials with structural colour, in this case, black. Angier goes on to discuss structural colour in nature mentioning bird feathers and spiders as examples of where you might find superblacks. For anyone unfamiliar with structural colour, the colour is not achieved with pigment or dye but with tiny structures, usually measured at the nanoscale, on a bird’s wing, a spider’s belly, a plant leaf, etc. Structural colour does not fade or change . Still, it’s possible to destroy the structures, i.e., the colour, but light and time will not have any effect since it’s the tiny structures and their optical properties which are producing the colour . (Even after all these years, my favourite structural colour story remains a Feb. 1, 2013 article, Color from Structure, by Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist magazine. For a shorter version, I excerpted parts of Luiggi’s story for my February 7, 2013 posting.)

The examples of structural colour in Angier’s article were new to me. However, there are many, many examples elsewhere,. You can find some here by using the terms ‘structural colour’ or ‘structural color’ in the blog’s search engine.

Angier’s is a really good article and I strongly recommend reading it if you have time but I’m a little surprised she doesn’t mention Vantablack and the artistic feud. More about that in a moment,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a ‘blacker black’

According to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), they have the blackest black. It too is courtesy of carbon nanotubes.

The Redemption of Vanity, is a work of art by MIT artist in residence Diemut Strebe that has been realized together with Brian L. Wardle, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Director of necstlab and Nano- Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium and his team Drs. Luiz Acauan and Estelle Cohen. Strebe’s residency at MIT is supported by the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). Image: Diemut Strebe

What you see in the above ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ was on show at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) from September 13 – November 29, 2019. It’s both an art piece and a demonstration of MIT’s blackest black.

There are two new releases from MIT. The first is the more technical one. From a Sept. 12, 2019 MIT news release,

With apologies to “Spinal Tap,” it appears that black can, indeed, get more black.

MIT engineers report today that they have cooked up a material that is 10 times blacker than anything that has previously been reported. The material is made from vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, or CNTs — microscopic filaments of carbon, like a fuzzy forest of tiny trees, that the team grew on a surface of chlorine-etched aluminum foil. The foil captures at least 99.995 percent* of any incoming light, making it the blackest material on record.

The researchers have published their findings today in the journal ACS-Applied Materials and Interfaces. They are also showcasing the cloak-like material as part of a new exhibit today at the New York Stock Exchange, titled “The Redemption of Vanity.”

The artwork, conceived by Diemut Strebe, an artist-in-residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology, in collaboration with Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and his group, and MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology artist-in-residence Diemut Strebe, features a 16.78-carat natural yellow diamond from LJ West Diamonds, estimated to be worth $2 million, which the team coated with the new, ultrablack CNT material. The effect is arresting: The gem, normally brilliantly faceted, appears as a flat, black void.

Wardle says the CNT material, aside from making an artistic statement, may also be of practical use, for instance in optical blinders that reduce unwanted glare, to help space telescopes spot orbiting exoplanets.

“There are optical and space science applications for very black materials, and of course, artists have been interested in black, going back well before the Renaissance,” Wardle says. “Our material is 10 times blacker than anything that’s ever been reported, but I think the blackest black is a constantly moving target. Someone will find a blacker material, and eventually we’ll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black.”

Wardle’s co-author on the paper is former MIT postdoc Kehang Cui, now a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Into the void

Wardle and Cui didn’t intend to engineer an ultrablack material. Instead, they were experimenting with ways to grow carbon nanotubes on electrically conducting materials such as aluminum, to boost their electrical and thermal properties.

But in attempting to grow CNTs on aluminum, Cui ran up against a barrier, literally: an ever-present layer of oxide that coats aluminum when it is exposed to air. This oxide layer acts as an insulator, blocking rather than conducting electricity and heat. As he cast about for ways to remove aluminum’s oxide layer, Cui found a solution in salt, or sodium chloride.

At the time, Wardle’s group was using salt and other pantry products, such as baking soda and detergent, to grow carbon nanotubes. In their tests with salt, Cui noticed that chloride ions were eating away at aluminum’s surface and dissolving its oxide layer.

“This etching process is common for many metals,” Cui says. “For instance, ships suffer from corrosion of chlorine-based ocean water. Now we’re using this process to our advantage.”

Cui found that if he soaked aluminum foil in saltwater, he could remove the oxide layer. He then transferred the foil to an oxygen-free environment to prevent reoxidation, and finally, placed the etched aluminum in an oven, where the group carried out techniques to grow carbon nanotubes via a process called chemical vapor deposition.

By removing the oxide layer, the researchers were able to grow carbon nanotubes on aluminum, at much lower temperatures than they otherwise would, by about 100 degrees Celsius. They also saw that the combination of CNTs on aluminum significantly enhanced the material’s thermal and electrical properties — a finding that they expected.

What surprised them was the material’s color.

“I remember noticing how black it was before growing carbon nanotubes on it, and then after growth, it looked even darker,” Cui recalls. “So I thought I should measure the optical reflectance of the sample.

“Our group does not usually focus on optical properties of materials, but this work was going on at the same time as our art-science collaborations with Diemut, so art influenced science in this case,” says Wardle.

Wardle and Cui, who have applied for a patent on the technology, are making the new CNT process freely available to any artist to use for a noncommercial art project.

“Built to take abuse”

Cui measured the amount of light reflected by the material, not just from directly overhead, but also from every other possible angle. The results showed that the material absorbed at least 99.995 percent of incoming light, from every angle. In other words, it reflected 10 times less light than all other superblack materials, including Vantablack. If the material contained bumps or ridges, or features of any kind, no matter what angle it was viewed from, these features would be invisible, obscured in a void of black.  

The researchers aren’t entirely sure of the mechanism contributing to the material’s opacity, but they suspect that it may have something to do with the combination of etched aluminum, which is somewhat blackened, with the carbon nanotubes. Scientists believe that forests of carbon nanotubes can trap and convert most incoming light to heat, reflecting very little of it back out as light, thereby giving CNTs a particularly black shade.

“CNT forests of different varieties are known to be extremely black, but there is a lack of mechanistic understanding as to why this material is the blackest. That needs further study,” Wardle says.

The material is already gaining interest in the aerospace community. Astrophysicist and Nobel laureate John Mather, who was not involved in the research, is exploring the possibility of using Wardle’s material as the basis for a star shade — a massive black shade that would shield a space telescope from stray light.

“Optical instruments like cameras and telescopes have to get rid of unwanted glare, so you can see what you want to see,” Mather says. “Would you like to see an Earth orbiting another star? We need something very black. … And this black has to be tough to withstand a rocket launch. Old versions were fragile forests of fur, but these are more like pot scrubbers — built to take abuse.”

[Note] An earlier version of this story stated that the new material captures more than 99.96 percent of incoming light. That number has been updated to be more precise; the material absorbs at least 99.995 of incoming light.

Here’s an August 29, 2019 news release from MIT announcing the then upcoming show. Usually I’d expect to see a research paper associated with this work but this time it seems to an art exhibit only,

The MIT Center for Art, Science &Technology (CAST) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) will present The Redemption of Vanity,created by artist Diemut Strebe in collaboration with MIT scientist Brian Wardle and his lab, on view at the New York Stock Exchange September 13, 2019 -November 25, 2019. For the work, a 16.78 carat natural yellow diamond valued at $2 million from L.J.West was coated using a new procedure of generating carbon nanotubes (CNTs), recently measured to be the blackest black ever created, which makes the diamond seem to disappear into an invisible void. The patented carbon nanotube technology (CNT) absorbs more than 99.96% of light and was developed by Professor Wardle and his necstlablab at MIT.

“Any object covered with this CNT material loses all its plasticity and appears entirely flat, abbreviated/reduced to a black silhouette. In outright contradiction to this we see that a diamond,while made of the very same element (carbon) performs the most intense reflection of light on earth.Because of the extremely high light absorbtive qualities of the CNTs, any object, in this case a large diamond coated with CNT’s, becomes a kind of black hole absent of shadows,“ explains Strebe.“The unification of extreme opposites in one object and the particular aesthetic features of the CNTs caught my imagination for this art project.”

“Strebe’s art-science collaboration caused us to look at the optical properties of our new CNT growth, and we discovered that these particular CNTs are blacker than all other reported materials by an order of magnitude across the visible spectrum”, says Wardle. The MIT team is offering the process for any artist to use. “We do not believe in exclusive ownership of any material or idea for any artwork and have opened our method to any artist,” say Strebe and Wardle.“

The project explores material and immaterial value attached to objects and concepts in reference to luxury, society and to art. We are presenting the literal devaluation of a diamond, which is highly symbolic and of high economic value.It presents a challenge to art market mechanisms on the one hand, while expressing at the same time questions of the value of art in a broader way. In this sense it manifests an inquiry into the significance of the value of objects of art and the art market,” says Strebe. “We are honored to present this work at The New York Stock Exchange, which I believe to be a most fitting location to consider the ideas embedded in The Redemption of Vanity.”

“The New York Stock Exchange, a center of financial and technological innovation for 227 years, is the perfect venue to display Diemut Strebe and Professor Brian Wardle’s collaboration. Their work brings together cutting-edge nanotube technology and a natural diamond, which is a symbol of both value and longevity,” said John Tuttle, NYSE Group Vice Chairman & Chief Commercial Officer.

“We welcome all scientists and artists to venture into the world of natural color diamonds. The Redemption of Vanity exemplifies the bond between art, science, and luxury. The 16-carat vivid yellow diamond in the exhibit spent millions of years in complete darkness, deep below the earth’s surface. It was only recently unearthed —a once-in-a-lifetime discovery of exquisite size and color. Now the diamond will relive its journey to darkness as it is covered in the blackest of materials. Once again, it will become a reminder that something rare and beautiful can exist even in darkness,”said Larry West.

The “disappearing” diamond in The Redemption of Vanity is a $2 Million Fancy Vivid Yellow SI1 (GIA), Radiant shape, from color diamond specialist, L.J. West Diamonds Inc. of New York.

The Redemption of Vanity, conceived by Diemut Strebe, has been realized with Brian L. Wardle, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Director of necstlab and Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium and his team Drs. Luiz Acauan and Estelle Cohen, in conjunction with Strebe’s residency at MIT supported by the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).


Diemut Strebe is a conceptual artist based in Boston, MA and a MIT CAST Visiting Artist. She has collaborated with several MIT faculty, including Noam Chomsky and Robert Langer on Sugababe (2014), Litmus (2014) and Yeast Expression(2015); Seth Lloyd and Dirk Englund on Wigner’s Friends(2014); Alan Guth on Plötzlich! (2018); researchers in William Tisdale’s Lab on The Origin of the Works of Art(2018); Regina Barzilay and Elchanan Mossel on The Prayer (2019); and Ken Kamrin and John Brisson on The Gymnast (2019). Strebe is represented by the Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Brian L. Wardle is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and the director of the necstlab research group and MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium. Wardle previously worked with CAST Visiting Artist Trevor Paglen on The Last Picturesproject (2012).


A major cross-school initiative, the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) creates new opportunities for art, science and technology to thrive as interrelated, mutually informing modes of exploration, knowledge and discovery. CAST’s multidisciplinary platform presents performing and visual arts programs, supports research projects for artists working with science and engineering labs, and sponsors symposia, classes, workshops, design studios, lectures and publications. The Center is funded in part by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Evan Ziporyn is the Faculty Director and Leila W. Kinney is the Executive Director.Since its inception in 2012, CAST has been the catalyst for more than 150 artist residencies and collaborative projects with MIT faculty and students, including numerous cross-disciplinary courses, workshops, concert series, multimedia projects, lectures and symposia. The visiting artists program is a cornerstone of CAST’s activities, which encourages cross-fertilization among disciplines and intensive interaction with MIT’s faculty and students. More info at https://arts.mit.edu/cast/ .


Since the late 1960s, MIT has been a leader in integrating the arts and pioneering a model for collaboration among artists, scientists and engineers in a research setting. CAST’s Visiting Artists Program brings internationally acclaimed artists to engage with MIT’s creative community in ways that are mutually enlightening for the artists and for faculty, students and research staff at the Institute. Artists who have worked extensively at MIT include Mel Chin, Olafur Eliasson, Rick Lowe, Vik Muniz, Trevor Paglen, Tomás Saraceno, Maya Beiser, Agnieszka Kurant, and Anicka Yi.


L.J. West Diamonds is a three generation natural color diamond whole sale rfounded in the late 1970’s by Larry J. West and based in New York City. L.J. West has established itself as one of the world’s prominent houses for some of the most rare and important exotic natural fancy color diamonds to have ever been unearthed. This collection includes a vast color spectrum of rare pink, blue, yellow, green, orange and red diamonds. L.J. West is an expert in every phase of the jewelry process –from sourcing to the cutting, polishing and final design. Each exceptional jewel is carefully set to become a unique work of art.The Redemption of Vanity is on view at the New York Stock Exchange by appointment only.

Press viewing: September 13, 2019 at 3pmNew York Stock Exchange, 11 Wall Street, New York, NY 10005RSVP required. Please check-in at the blue tent at 2 Broad Street(at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets). All guests are required to show a government issued photo ID and go through airport-like security upon entering the NYSE.NYSE follows a business casual dress code -jeans & sneakers are not permitted.

No word yet if there will be other showings.

An artistic feud (of sorts)

Earlier this year, I updated a story on Vantablack. It was the blackest black, blocking 99.8% of light when I featured it in a March 14, 2016 posting. The UK company making the announcement, Surrey NanoSystems, then laid the groundwork for an artistic feud when it granted exclusive rights to their carbon nanotube-based coating, Vantablack, to Sir Anish Kapoor mentioned here in an April 16, 2016 posting.

This exclusivity outraged some artists notably, Stuart Semple. In his first act of defiance, he created the pinkest pink. Next, came a Kickstarter campaign to fund Semple’s blackest black, which would be available to all artists except Anish Kapoor. You can read all about the pinkest pink and blackest black as per Semple in my February 21, 2019 posting. You can also get a bit of an update in an Oct. 17, 2019 Stuart Semple proffile by Berenice Baker for Verdict,

… so I managed to hire a scientist, Jemima, to work in the studio with me. She got really close to a super black, and we made our own pigment to this recipe and it was awesome, but we couldn’t afford to put it into manufacture because it cost £25,000.”

Semple launched a Kickstarter campaign and was amazed to raise half a million pounds, making it the second most-supported art Kickstarter of all time.

The ‘race to the blackest’ is well underway, with MIT researchers recently announcing a carbon nanotube-based black whose light absorption they tested by coasting a diamond. But Semple is determined that his black should be affordable by all artists and work like a paint, not only perform in laboratory conditions. He’s currently working with Jemima and two chemists to upgrade the recipe for Black 3.2.

I don’t know how Semple arrived at his blackest black. I think it’s unlikely that he achieved the result by working with carbon nanotubes since my understanding is that CNTs aren’t that easy to produce.


Interesting, eh? In just a few years scientists have progressed from achieving a 99.8% black to 99.999%. It doesn’t seem like that big a difference to me but with Solomon Woods, at the beginning of this post, making the point that our eyes are very sensitive to light, an artistic feud, and a study uncovering deep emotions, getting the blackest black is a much more artistically fraught endeavour than I had imagined.

Breakthrough with Alpaca nanobodies

Caption: Bryson and Sanchez, two alpacas who produce unusually small antibodies. These ‘nanobodies’ could help highly promising CAR T-cell therapies kill solid tumors, where right now they work only in blood cancers. Credit: Courtesy of Boston Children’s Hospital

Bryson and Sanchez are not the first camelids to grace this blog. ‘Llam’ me lend you some antibodies—antibody particles extracted from camels and llamas, a June 12, 2014 posting, and Llama-derived nanobodies are good for solving crystal structure, a December 14, 2017 posting, both feature news about medical breakthroughs with regard to the antibodies found in Llamas, camels, and other camelids (including alpacas) could enable.

The latest camelid-oriented medical research story is in an April 11, 2019 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

In 1989, two undergraduate students at the Free University of Brussels were asked to test frozen blood serum from camels, and stumbled on a previously unknown kind of antibody. It was a miniaturized version of a human antibody, made up only of two heavy protein chains, rather than two light and two heavy chains. As they eventually reported, the antibodies’ presence was confirmed not only in camels, but also in llamas and alpacas.

Fast forward 30 years. In the journal PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Science] this week [April 8 – 12, 2019], researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] show that these mini-antibodies, shrunk further to create so-called nanobodies, may help solve a problem in the cancer field: making CAR T-cell therapies work in solid tumors.

An April 11, 2019 Boston Children’s Hospital news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explores the technology,

Highly promising for blood cancers, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy genetically engineers a patient’s own T cells to make them better at attacking cancer cells. The Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is currently using CAR T-cell therapy for relapsed acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), for example.

But CAR T cells haven’t been good at eliminating solid tumors. It’s been hard to find cancer-specific proteins on solid tumors that could serve as safe targets. Solid tumors are also protected by an extracellular matrix, a supportive web of proteins that acts as a barrier, as well as immunosuppressive molecules that weaken the T-cell attack.

Rethinking CAR T cells

That’s where nanobodies come in. For two decades, they largely remained in the hands of the Belgian team. But that changed after the patent expired in 2013. [emphases mine]

“A lot of people got into the game and began to appreciate nanobodies’ unique properties,” says Hidde Ploegh, PhD, an immunologist in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s and senior investigator on the PNAS study.

One useful attribute is their enhanced targeting abilities. Ploegh and his team at Boston Children’s, in collaboration with Noo Jalikhani, PhD, and Richard Hynes, PhD at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, have harnessed nanobodies to carry imaging agents, allowing precise visualization of metastatic cancers.

The Hynes team targeted the nanobodies to the tumors’ extracellular matrix, or ECM — aiming imaging agents not at the cancer cells themselves, but at the environment that surrounds them. Such markers are common to many tumors, but don’t typically appear on normal cells.

“Our lab and the Hynes lab are among the few actively pursuing this approach of targeting the tumor micro-environment,” says Ploegh. “Most labs are looking for tumor-specific antigens.”

Targeting tumor protectors

Ploegh’s lab took this idea to CAR T-cell therapy. His team, including members of the Hynes lab, took aim at the very factors that make solid tumors difficult to treat.

The CAR T cells they created were studded with nanobodies that recognize specific proteins in the tumor environment, bearing signals directing them to kill any cell they bound to. One protein, EIIIB, a variant of fibronectin, is found only on newly formed blood vessels that supply tumors with nutrients. Another, PD-L1, is an immunosuppressive protein that most cancers use to silence approaching T cells.

Biochemist Jessica Ingram, PhD of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Ploegh’s partner and a coauthor on the paper, led the manufacturing pipeline. She would drive to Amherst, Mass., to gather T cells from two alpacas, Bryson and Sanchez, inject them with the antigen of interest and harvest their blood for further processing back in Boston to generate mini-antibodies.

Taking down melanoma and colon cancer

Tested in two separate melanoma mouse models, as well as a colon adenocarcinoma model in mice, the nanobody-based CAR T cells killed tumor cells, significantly slowed tumor growth and improved the animals’ survival, with no readily apparent side effects.

Ploegh thinks that the engineered T cells work through a combination of factors. They caused damage to tumor tissue, which tends to stimulate inflammatory immune responses. Targeting EIIIB may damage blood vessels in a way that decreases blood supply to tumors, while making them more permeable to cancer drugs.

“If you destroy the local blood supply and cause vascular leakage, you could perhaps improve the delivery of other things that might have a harder time getting in,” says Ploegh. “I think we should look at this as part of a combination therapy.”

Future directions

Ploegh thinks his team’s approach could be useful in many solid tumors. He’s particularly interested in testing nanobody-based CAR T cells in models of pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer from which Ingram passed away in 2018.

The technology itself can be pushed even further, says Ploegh.

“Nanobodies could potentially carry a cytokine to boost the immune response to the tumor, toxic molecules that kill tumor and radioisotopes to irradiate the tumor at close range,” he says. “CAR T cells are the battering ram that would come in to open the door; the other elements would finish the job. In theory, you could equip a single T cell with multiple chimeric antigen receptors and achieve even more precision. That’s something we would like to pursue.”

So, the Belgian researchers have a patent for two decades and, after it expires, more researchers could help to take the work further. Hmm …

Moving on, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanobody-based CAR T cells that target the tumor microenvironment inhibit the growth of solid tumors in immunocompetent mice by Yushu Joy Xie, Michael Dougan, Noor Jailkhani, Jessica Ingram, Tao Fang, Laura Kummer, Noor Momin, Novalia Pishesha, Steffen Rickelt, Richard O. Hynes, and Hidde Ploegh. PNAS DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1817147116
First published April 1, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall