A Dec. 7, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announced a new technology for rapid COVID-19 testing (Note: A link has been removed),
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, testing remains a key strategy for tracking and containing the virus. Bioengineering graduate student, Maha Alafeef, has co-developed a rapid, ultrasensitive test using a paper-based electrochemical sensor that can detect the presence of the virus in less than five minutes.
The team led by professor Dipanjan Pan reported their findings in ACS Nano (“Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip”).
“Currently, we are experiencing a once-in-a-century life-changing event,” said Alafeef. “We are responding to this global need from a holistic approach by developing multidisciplinary tools for early detection and diagnosis and treatment for SARS-CoV-2.”
I wonder why they didn’t think to provide a caption for the graphene substrate (the square surface) underlying the gold electrode (the round thing) or provide a caption for the electrode. Maybe they assumed anyone knowledgeable about graphene would be able to identify it?
There are two broad categories of COVID-19 tests on the market. The first category uses reverse transcriptase real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and nucleic acid hybridization strategies to identify viral RNA. Current FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved diagnostic tests use this technique. Some drawbacks include the amount of time it takes to complete the test, the need for specialized personnel and the availability of equipment and reagents.
The second category of tests focuses on the detection of antibodies. However, there could be a delay of a few days to a few weeks after a person has been exposed to the virus for them to produce detectable antibodies.
In recent years, researchers have had some success with creating point-of-care biosensors using 2D nanomaterials such as graphene to detect diseases. The main advantages of graphene-based biosensors are their sensitivity, low cost of production and rapid detection turnaround. “The discovery of graphene opened up a new era of sensor development due to its properties. Graphene exhibits unique mechanical and electrochemical properties that make it ideal for the development of sensitive electrochemical sensors,” said Alafeef. The team created a graphene-based electrochemical biosensor with an electrical read-out setup to selectively detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material.
There are two components [emphasis mine] to this biosensor: a platform to measure an electrical read-out and probes to detect the presence of viral RNA. To create the platform, researchers first coated filter paper with a layer of graphene nanoplatelets to create a conductive film [emphasis mine]. Then, they placed a gold electrode with a predefined design on top of the graphene [emphasis mine] as a contact pad for electrical readout. Both gold and graphene have high sensitivity and conductivity which makes this platform ultrasensitive to detect changes in electrical signals.
Current RNA-based COVID-19 tests screen for the presence of the N-gene (nucleocapsid phosphoprotein) on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this research, the team designed antisense oligonucleotide (ASOs) probes to target two regions of the N-gene. Targeting two regions ensures the reliability of the senor in case one region undergoes gene mutation. Furthermore, gold nanoparticles (AuNP) are capped with these single-stranded nucleic acids (ssDNA), which represents an ultra-sensitive sensing probe for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA.
The researchers previously showed the sensitivity of the developed sensing probes in their earlier work published in ACS Nano. The hybridization of the viral RNA with these probes causes a change in the sensor electrical response. The AuNP caps accelerate the electron transfer and when broadcasted over the sensing platform, results in an increase in the output signal and indicates the presence of the virus.
The team tested the performance of this sensor by using COVID-19 positive and negative samples. The sensor showed a significant increase in the voltage of positive samples compared to the negative ones and confirmed the presence of viral genetic material in less than five minutes. Furthermore, the sensor was able to differentiate viral RNA loads in these samples. Viral load is an important quantitative indicator of the progress of infection and a challenge to measure using existing diagnostic methods.
This platform has far-reaching applications due to its portability and low cost. The sensor, when integrated with microcontrollers and LED screens or with a smartphone via Bluetooth or wifi, could be used at the point-of-care in a doctor’s office or even at home. Beyond COVID-19, the research team also foresees the system to be adaptable for the detection of many different diseases.
“The unlimited potential of bioengineering has always sparked my utmost interest with its innovative translational applications,” Alafeef said. “I am happy to see my research project has an impact on solving a real-world problem. Finally, I would like to thank my Ph.D. advisor professor Dipanjan Pan for his endless support, research scientist Dr. Parikshit Moitra, and research assistant Ketan Dighe for their help and contribution toward the success of this study.”
I’m not sure where I found this notice but it is most definitely from the American Chemical Society: “This paper is freely accessible, at this time, for unrestricted RESEARCH re-use and analyses in any form or by any means with acknowledgement of the original source. These permissions are granted for the duration of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic.”
Teaching grammar and syntax to artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms (specifically natural language processing (NLP) algorithms) has helped researchers understand and predict viral mutations more speedily. This facility is especially useful at a time when the Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus seems to be mutating into more easily transmissible variants.
Will Douglas Heaven’s Jan. 14, 2021 article for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review describes the work that links AI, grammar, and mutating viruses (Note: Links have been removed),
Galileo once observed that nature is written in math. Biology might be written in words. Natural-language processing (NLP) algorithms are now able to generate protein sequences and predict virus mutations, including key changes that help the coronavirus evade the immune system.
The key insight making this possible is that many properties of biological systems can be interpreted in terms of words and sentences. “We’re learning the language of evolution,” says Bonnie Berger, a computational biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT].
In the last few years, a handful of researchers—including teams from geneticist George Church’s [Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard University and MIT, etc.] lab and Salesforce [emphasis mine]—have shown that protein sequences and genetic codes can be modeled using NLP techniques.
In a study published in Science today, Berger and her colleagues pull several of these strands together and use NLP to predict mutations that allow viruses to avoid being detected by antibodies in the human immune system, a process known as viral immune escape. The basic idea is that the interpretation of a virus by an immune system is analogous to the interpretation of a sentence by a human.
Berger’s team uses two different linguistic concepts: grammar and semantics (or meaning). The genetic or evolutionary fitness of a virus—characteristics such as how good it is at infecting a host—can be interpreted in terms of grammatical correctness. A successful, infectious virus is grammatically correct; an unsuccessful one is not.
Similarly, mutations of a virus can be interpreted in terms of semantics. Mutations that make a virus appear different to things in its environment—such as changes in its surface proteins that make it invisible to certain antibodies—have altered its meaning. Viruses with different mutations can have different meanings, and a virus with a different meaning may need different antibodies to read it.
Instead of millions of sentences, they trained the NLP model on thousands of genetic sequences taken from three different viruses: 45,000 unique sequences for a strain of influenza, 60,000 for a strain of HIV, and between 3,000 and 4,000 for a strain of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19. “There’s less data for the coronavirus because there’s been less surveillance,” says Brian Hie, a graduate student at MIT, who built the models.
The overall aim of the approach is to identify mutations that might let a virus escape an immune system without making it less infectious—that is, mutations that change a virus’s meaning without making it grammatically incorrect.
But it’s also just the beginning. Treating genetic mutations as changes in meaning could be applied in different ways across biology. “A good analogy can go a long way,” says Bryson [Bryan Bryson, a biologist at MIT].
If you have time, I recommend reading Heaven’s Jan. 14, 2021 article in its entirety as it’s well written with clear explanations. As for the article’s mentions of George Church and Salesforce, the former could be expected while the latter is not (by me, I speak for no one else).
I find it fascinating that a company which describes itself (from What is Salesforce?) as providing “… customer relationship management, or CRM. It gives all your departments — including marketing, sales, commerce, and service — a shared view of your customers … ” seems to be conducting investigations into one (or more?) areas of biology.
For those who’d like to dive into the science as described in Heaven’s article, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Here’s the company’s president and CEO [chief executive officer], Dr. Thomas Madden explaining his company’s delivery system (from Acuitas’ news and events webpage),
For anyone who might find a textual description about the vaccine helpful, I have a Nov. 9, 2020 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company,
… a handful of small biotech companies began scrambling to develop vaccines using an as-yet-unproven technology platform that relies on something called messenger RNA [ribonucleic acid], usually shortened to mRNA …
Like other vaccines, mRNA vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a threat like a virus and begin producing antibodies to protect itself. But while traditional vaccines often use inactivated doses of the organisms that cause disease, mRNA vaccines are designed to make the body produce those proteins itself. Messenger RNA—a molecule that contains instructions for cells to make DNA—is injected into cells. In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines provide instructions for cells to start producing the “spike” protein of the new coronavirus, the protein that helps the virus get into cells. On its own, the spike protein isn’t harmful. But it triggers the immune system to begin a defensive response. As Bill Gates, who has supported companies like Moderna and BioNTech through the Gates Foundation, has described it, “you essentially turn your body into its own manufacturing unit.”
Amy Judd’s Nov. 9, 2020 article for Global news online explains (or you can just take another look at the video to refresh your memory) how the Acuitas technology fits into the vaccine picture,
Vancouver-based Acuitas Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, is playing a key role through a technology known as lipid nanoparticles, which deliver messenger RNA into cells.
“The technology we provide to our partners is lipid nanoparticles and BioNTech and Pfizer are developing a vaccine that’s using a messenger RNA that tells our cells how to make a protein that’s actually found in the COVID-19 virus,” Dr. Thomas Madden, president and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics, told Global News Monday [Nov. 9, 2020].
“But the messenger RNA can’t work by itself, it needs a delivery technology to protect this after it’s administered and then to carry it into the cells where it can be expressed and give rise to an immune response.”
Madden said they like to think of the lipid nanoparticles as protective wrapping around a fragile glass ornament [emphasis mine] being shipped to your house online. That protective wrapping would then make sure the ornament made it to your house, through your front door, then unwrap itself and leave in your hallway, ready for you to come and grab it when you came home.
Acuitas Therapeutics employs 29 people and Madden said he believes everyone is feeling very proud of their work.
“Not many people are aware of the history of this technology and the fact that it originated in Vancouver,” he added.
“Dr. Pieter Cullis was one of the key scientists who brought together a team to develop this technology many, many years ago. UBC and Vancouver and companies associated with those scientists have been at the global centre of this technology for many years now.
“I think we’ve been looking for a light at the end of the tunnel for quite some time. I think everybody has been hoping that a vaccine would be able to provide the protection we need to move out of our current situation and I think this is now a confirmation that this hope wasn’t misplaced.”
Nanomedicine in Vancouver
For anyone who’s curious about the Canadian nanomedicine scene, you can find out more about it on Canada’s NanoMedicines Innovation Network (NMIN) website. They recently held a virtual event (Vancouver Nanomedicine Day) on Sept. 17, 2020 (see my Sept. 11, 2020 posting for details), which featured a presentation about Aquitas’ technology.
Happily, the organizers have posted videos for most of the sessions. Dr. Ying Tam of Acuitas made this presentation (about 22 mins. running time) “A Novel Vaccine Approach Using Messenger RNA‐Lipid Nanoparticles: Preclinical and Clinical Perspectives.” If you’re interested in that video or any of the others go to the NanoMedicines Innovation Network’s Nanomedicine Day 2020 webpage.
I believe that swab they stick up your nose to test for COVDI-19 is 10 inches long so it seems to me that discomfort or unpleasant are not the words that best describe the testing experience .
Hopefully, no one will have to find inadequate vocabulary for this new COVID-19 testing assuming that future trials are successful and they are able to put the technology into production. From an August 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,
Few people who have undergone nasopharyngeal swabs for coronavirus testing would describe it as a pleasant experience. The procedure involves sticking a long swab up the nose to collect a sample from the back of the nose and throat, which is then analyzed for SARS-CoV-2 RNA [ribonucleic acid] by the reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).
Now, researchers reporting in [American Chemical Society] ACS Nano (“Multiplexed Nanomaterial-Based Sensor Array for Detection of COVID-19 in Exhaled Breath”) have developed a prototype device that non-invasively detected COVID-19 in the exhaled breath of infected patients.
In addition to being uncomfortable, the current gold standard for COVID-19 testing requires RT-PCR, a time-consuming laboratory procedure. Because of backlogs, obtaining a result can take several days. To reduce transmission and mortality rates, healthcare systems need quick, inexpensive and easy-to-use tests. Hossam Haick, Hu Liu, Yueyin Pan and colleagues wanted to develop a nanomaterial-based sensor that could detect COVID-19 in exhaled breath, similar to a breathalyzer test for alcohol intoxication. Previous studies have shown that viruses and the cells they infect emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be exhaled in the breath.
The researchers made an array of gold nanoparticles linked to molecules that are sensitive to various VOCs. When VOCs interact with the molecules on a nanoparticle, the electrical resistance changes. The researchers trained the sensor to detect COVID-19 by using machine learning to compare the pattern of electrical resistance signals obtained from the breath of 49 confirmed COVID-19 patients with those from 58 healthy controls and 33 non-COVID lung infection patients in Wuhan, China. Each study participant blew into the device for 2-3 seconds from a distance of 1¬-2 cm. Once machine learning identified a potential COVID-19 signature, the team tested the accuracy of the device on a subset of participants. In the test set, the device showed 76% accuracy in distinguishing COVID-19 cases from controls and 95% accuracy in discriminating COVID-19 cases from lung infections. The sensor could also distinguish, with 88% accuracy, between sick and recovered COVID-19 patients. Although the test needs to be validated in more patients, it could be useful for screening large populations to determine which individuals need further testing, the researchers say.
Mayurika Chakravorty at Carleton University (Department of English) in Ottawa, (Ontario, Canada) points out that the latest pandemic (COVID-19) is an example of how everything is connected (interconnectedness or globality) by way of science fiction in her July 19, 2020 essay on The Conversation (h/t July 20, 2020 item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed,
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a theory widely shared on social media suggested that a science fiction text, Dean Koontz’s 1981 science fiction novel, The Eyes of Darkness, had predicted the coronavirus pandemic with uncanny precision. COVID-19 has held the entire world hostage, producing a resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world depicted in many science fiction texts. Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s classic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake refers to a time when “there was a lot of dismay out there, and not enough ambulances” — a prediction of our current predicament.
However, the connection between science fiction and pandemics runs deeper. They are linked by a perception of globality, what sociologist Roland Robertson defines as “the consciousness of the world as a whole.”
Chakravorty goes on to make a compelling case (from her July 19, 2020 essay Note: Links have been removed),
In his 1992 survey of the history of telecommunications, How the World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke alludes to the famed historian Alfred Toynbee’s lecture entitled “The Unification of the World.” Delivered at the University of London in 1947, Toynbee envisions a “single planetary society” and notes how “despite all the linguistic, religious and cultural barriers that still sunder nations and divide them into yet smaller tribes, the unification of the world has passed the point of no return.”
Science fiction writers have, indeed, always embraced globality. In interplanetary texts, humans of all nations, races and genders have to come together as one people in the face of alien invasions. Facing an interplanetary encounter, bellicose nations have to reluctantly eschew political rivalries and collaborate on a global scale, as in Denis Villeneuve’s 2018 film, Arrival.
Globality is central to science fiction. To be identified as an Earthling, one has to transcend the local and the national, and sometimes, even the global, by embracing a larger planetary consciousness.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin conceptualizes the Ekumen, which comprises 83 habitable planets. The idea of the Ekumen was borrowed from Le Guin’s father, the noted cultural anthropologist Arthur L. Kroeber. Kroeber had, in a 1945 paper, introduced the concept (from Greek oikoumene) to represent a “historic culture aggregate.” Originally, Kroeber used oikoumene to refer to the “entire inhabited world,” as he traced back human culture to one single people. Le Guin then adopted this idea of a common origin of shared humanity in her novel.
Regarding Canada’s response to the crisis [COVID-19], researchers have noted both the immorality and futility of a nationalistic “Canada First” approach.
Scientists are working overtime to find an effective treatment for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Many of these efforts target a specific part of the virus, such as the spike protein. Now, researchers reporting in Nano Letters have taken a different approach, using nanosponges coated with human cell membranes –– the natural targets of the virus –– to soak up SARS-CoV-2 and keep it from infecting cells in a petri dish.
To gain entry, SARS-CoV-2 uses its spike protein to bind to two known proteins on human cells, called ACE2 and CD147. Blocking these interactions would keep the virus from infecting cells, so many researchers are trying to identify drugs directed against the spike protein. Anthony Griffiths, Liangfang Zhang and colleagues had a different idea: making a nanoparticle decoy with the virus’ natural targets, including ACE2 and CD147, to lure SARS-CoV-2 away from cells. And to test this idea, they conducted experiments with the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus in a biosafety level 4 lab.
The researchers coated a nanoparticle polymer core with cell membranes from either human lung epithelial cells or macrophages –– two cell types infected by SARS-CoV-2. They showed that the nanosponges had ACE2 and CD147, as well as other cell membrane proteins, projecting outward from the polymer core. When administered to mice, the nanosponges did not show any short-term toxicity. Then, the researchers treated cells in a dish with SARS-CoV-2 and the lung epithelial or macrophage nanosponges. Both decoys neutralized SARS-CoV-2 and prevented it from infecting cells to a similar extent. The researchers plan to next test the nanosponges in animals before moving to human clinical trials. In theory, the nanosponge approach would work even if SARS-CoV-2 mutates to resist other therapies, and it could be used against other viruses, as well, the researchers say.
There are two research teams involved, one at Boston University and the other at the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego or UCSD). The June 18, 2020 Boston University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kat J. McAlpine adds more details about the research, provides some insights from the researchers, and is a little redundant if you’ve already seen the ACS news release,
Imagine if scientists could stop the coronavirus infection in its tracks simply by diverting its attention away from living lung cells? A new therapeutic countermeasure, announced in a Nano Letters study by researchers from Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and the University of California San Diego, appears to do just that in experiments that were carried out at the NEIDL in Boston.
“I was skeptical at the beginning because it seemed too good to be true,” says NEIDL microbiologist Anna Honko, one of the co-first authors on the study. “But when I saw the first set of results in the lab, I was just astonished.”
The technology consists of very small, nanosized drops of polymers–essentially, soft biofriendly plastics–covered in fragments of living lung cell and immune cell membranes.
“It looks like a nanoparticle coated in pieces of cell membrane,” Honko says. “The small polymer [droplet] mimics a cell having a membrane around it.”
The SARS-CoV-2 virus seeks out unique signatures of lung cell membranes and latches onto them. When that happens inside the human body, the coronavirus infection takes hold, with the SARS-CoV-2 viruses hijacking lung cells to replicate their own genetic material. But in experiments at the NEIDL, BU researchers observed that polymer droplets laden with pieces of lung cell membrane did a better job of attracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus than living lung cells. [emphasis mine]
By fusing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus better than living cells can, the nanotechnology appears to be an effective countermeasure to coronavirus infection, preventing SARS-CoV-2 from attacking cells.
“Our guess is that it acts like a decoy, it competes with cells for the virus,” says NEIDL microbiologist Anthony Griffiths, co-corresponding author on the study. “They are little bits of plastic, just containing the outer pieces of cells with none of the internal cellular machinery contained inside living cells. Conceptually, it’s such a simple idea. It mops up the virus like a sponge.”
That attribute is why the UC San Diego and BU research team call the technology “nanosponges.” Once SARS-CoV-2 binds with the cell fragments inside a nanosponge droplet–each one a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair–the coronavirus dies. Although the initial results are based on experiments conducted in cell culture dishes, the researchers believe that inside a human body, the biodegradable nanosponges and the SARS-CoV-2 virus trapped inside them could then be disposed of by the body’s immune system. The immune system routinely breaks down and gets rid of dead cell fragments caused by infection or normal cell life cycles.
There is also another important effect that the nanosponges have in the context of coronavirus infection. Honko says nanosponges containing fragments of immune cells can soak up cellular signals that increase inflammation [emphases mine]. Acute respiratory distress, caused by an inflammatory cascade inside the lungs, is the most deadly aspect of the coronavirus infection, sending patients into the intensive care unit for oxygen or ventilator support to help them breathe.
But the nanosponges, which can attract the inflammatory molecules that send the immune system into dangerous overdrive, can help tamp down that response, Honko says. By using both kinds of nanosponges, some containing lung cell fragments and some containing pieces of immune cells, she says it’s possible to “attack the coronavirus and the [body’s] response” responsible for disease and eventual lung failure.
At the NEIDL, Honko and Griffiths are now planning additional experiments to see how well the nanosponges can prevent coronavirus infection in animal models of the disease. They plan to work closely with the team of engineers at UC San Diego, who first developed the nanosponges more than a decade ago, to tailor the technology for eventual safe and effective use in humans.
“Traditionally, drug developers for infectious diseases dive deep on the details of the pathogen in order to find druggable targets,” said Liangfang Zhang, a UC San Diego nanoengineer and leader of the California-based team, according to a UC San Diego press release. “Our approach is different. We only need to know what the target cells are. And then we aim to protect the targets by creating biomimetic decoys.”
When the novel coronavirus first appeared, the idea of using the nanosponges to combat the infection came to Zhang almost immediately. He reached out to the NEIDL for help. Looking ahead, the BU and UC San Diego collaborators believe the nanosponges can easily be converted into a noninvasive treatment.
“We should be able to drop it right into the nose,” Griffiths says. “In humans, it could be something like a nasal spray.”
Honko agrees: “That would be an easy and safe administration method that should target the appropriate [respiratory] tissues. And if you wanted to treat patients that are already intubated, you could deliver it straight into the lung.”
Griffiths and Honko are especially intrigued by the nanosponges as a new platform for treating all types of viral infections. “The broad spectrum aspect of this is exceptionally appealing,” Griffiths says. The researchers say the nanosponge could be easily adapted to house other types of cell membranes preferred by other viruses, creating many new opportunities to use the technology against other tough-to-treat infections like the flu and even deadly hemorrhagic fevers caused by Ebola, Marburg, or Lassa viruses.
“I’m interested in seeing how far we can push this technology,” Honko says.
The University of California at* San Diego has released a video illustrating the nanosponges work,
Nanoparticles cloaked in human lung cell membranes and human immune cell membranes can attract and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus in cell culture, causing the virus to lose its ability to hijack host cells and reproduce.
The first data describing this new direction for fighting COVID-19 were published on June 17 in the journal Nano Letters. The “nanosponges” were developed by engineers at the University of California San Diego and tested by researchers at Boston University.
The UC San Diego researchers call their nano-scale particles “nanosponges” because they soak up harmful pathogens and toxins.
In lab experiments, both the lung cell and immune cell types of nanosponges caused the SARS-CoV-2 virus to lose nearly 90% of its “viral infectivity” in a dose-dependent manner. Viral infectivity is a measure of the ability of the virus to enter the host cell and exploit its resources to replicate and produce additional infectious viral particles.
Instead of targeting the virus itself, these nanosponges are designed to protect the healthy cells the virus invades.
“Traditionally, drug developers for infectious diseases dive deep on the details of the pathogen in order to find druggable targets. Our approach is different. We only need to know what the target cells are. And then we aim to protect the targets by creating biomimetic decoys,” said Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.
His lab first created this biomimetic nanosponge platform more than a decade ago and has been developing it for a wide range of applications ever since [emphasis mine]. When the novel coronavirus appeared, the idea of using the nanosponge platform to fight it came to Zhang “almost immediately,” he said.
In addition to the encouraging data on neutralizing the virus in cell culture, the researchers note that nanosponges cloaked with fragments of the outer membranes of macrophages could have an added benefit: soaking up inflammatory cytokine proteins, which are implicated in some of the most dangerous aspects of COVID-19 and are driven by immune response to the infection.
Making and testing COVID-19 nanosponges
Each COVID-19 nanosponge–a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair–consists of a polymer core coated in cell membranes extracted from either lung epithelial type II cells or macrophage cells. The membranes cover the sponges with all the same protein receptors as the cells they impersonate–and this inherently includes whatever receptors SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells in the body.
The researchers prepared several different concentrations of nanosponges in solution to test against the novel coronavirus. To test the ability of the nanosponges to block SARS-CoV-2 infectivity, the UC San Diego researchers turned to a team at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) to perform independent tests. In this BSL-4 lab–the highest biosafety level for a research facility–the researchers, led by Anthony Griffiths, associate professor of microbiology at Boston University School of Medicine, tested the ability of various concentrations of each nanosponge type to reduce the infectivity of live SARS-CoV-2 virus–the same strains that are being tested in other COVID-19 therapeutic and vaccine research.
At a concentration of 5 milligrams per milliliter, the lung cell membrane-cloaked sponges inhibited 93% of the viral infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. The macrophage-cloaked sponges inhibited 88% of the viral infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. Viral infectivity is a measure of the ability of the virus to enter the host cell and exploit its resources to replicate and produce additional infectious viral particles.
“From the perspective of an immunologist and virologist, the nanosponge platform was immediately appealing as a potential antiviral because of its ability to work against viruses of any kind. This means that as opposed to a drug or antibody that might very specifically block SARS-CoV-2 infection or replication, these cell membrane nanosponges might function in a more holistic manner in treating a broad spectrum of viral infectious diseases. I was optimistically skeptical initially that it would work, and then thrilled once I saw the results and it sunk in what this could mean for therapeutic development as a whole,” said Anna Honko, a co-first author on the paper and a Research Associate Professor, Microbiology at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL).
In the next few months, the UC San Diego researchers and collaborators will evaluate the nanosponges’ efficacy in animal models. The UC San Diego team has already shown short-term safety in the respiratory tracts and lungs of mice. If and when these COVID-19 nanosponges will be tested in humans depends on a variety of factors, but the researchers are moving as fast as possible.
“Another interesting aspect of our approach is that even as SARS-CoV-2 mutates, as long as the virus can still invade the cells we are mimicking, our nanosponge approach should still work. I’m not sure this can be said for some of the vaccines and therapeutics that are currently being developed,” said Zhang.
The researchers also expect these nanosponges would work against any new coronavirus or even other respiratory viruses, including whatever virus might trigger the next respiratory pandemic.
Mimicking lung epithelial cells and immune cells
Since the novel coronavirus often infects lung epithelial cells as the first step in COVID-19 infection, Zhang and his colleagues reasoned that it would make sense to cloak a nanoparticle in fragments of the outer membranes of lung epithelial cells to see if the virus could be tricked into latching on it instead of a lung cell.
Macrophages, which are white blood cells that play a major role in inflammation, also are very active in the lung during the course of a COVID-19 illness, so Zhang and colleagues created a second sponge cloaked in macrophage membrane.
The research team plans to study whether the macrophage sponges also have the ability to quiet cytokine storms in COVID-19 patients.
“We will see if the macrophage nanosponges can neutralize the excessive amount of these cytokines as well as neutralize the virus,” said Zhang.
Using macrophage cell fragments as cloaks builds on years of work to develop therapies for sepsis using macrophage nanosponges.
In a paper published in 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang and a team of researchers at UC San Diego showed that macrophage nanosponges can safely neutralize both endotoxins and pro-inflammatory cytokines in the bloodstream of mice. A San Diego biotechnology company co-founded by Zhang called Cellics Therapeutics is working to translate this macrophage nanosponge work into the clinic.
A potential COVID-19 therapeutic The COVID-19 nanosponge platform has significant testing ahead of it before scientists know whether it would be a safe and effective therapy against the virus in humans, Zhang cautioned [emphasis mine]. But if the sponges reach the clinical trial stage, there are multiple potential ways of delivering the therapy that include direct delivery into the lung for intubated patients, via an inhaler like for asthmatic patients, or intravenously, especially to treat the complication of cytokine storm.
A therapeutic dose of nanosponges might flood the lung with a trillion or more tiny nanosponges that could draw the virus away from healthy cells. Once the virus binds with a sponge, “it loses its viability and is not infective anymore, and will be taken up by our own immune cells and digested,” said Zhang.
“I see potential for a preventive treatment, for a therapeutic that could be given early because once the nanosponges get in the lung, they can stay in the lung for some time,” Zhang said. “If a virus comes, it could be blocked if there are nanosponges waiting for it.”
Growing momentum for nanosponges
Zhang’s lab at UC San Diego created the first membrane-cloaked nanoparticles over a decade ago. The first of these nanosponges were cloaked with fragments of red blood cell membranes. These nanosponges are being developed to treat bacterial pneumonia and have undergone all stages of pre-clinical testing by Cellics Therapeutics, the San Diego startup cofounded by Zhang. The company is currently in the process of submitting the investigational new drug (IND) application to the FDA for their lead candidate: red blood cell nanosponges for the treatment of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia. The company estimates the first patients in a clinical trial will be dosed next year.
The UC San Diego researchers have also shown that nanosponges can deliver drugs to a wound site; sop up bacterial toxins that trigger sepsis; and intercept HIV before it can infect human T cells.
The basic construction for each of these nanosponges is the same: a biodegradable, FDA-approved polymer core is coated in a specific type of cell membrane, so that it might be disguised as a red blood cell, or an immune T cell or a platelet cell. The cloaking keeps the immune system from spotting and attacking the particles as dangerous invaders.
“I think of the cell membrane fragments as the active ingredients. This is a different way of looking at drug development,” said Zhang. “For COVID-19, I hope other teams come up with safe and effective therapies and vaccines as soon as possible. At the same time, we are working and planning as if the world is counting on us.”
I wish the researchers good luck. For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
At long last, the end is in sight! This last part is mostly a collection of items that don’t fit elsewhere or could have fit elsewhere but that particular part was already overstuffed.
Podcasting science for the people
March 2009 was the birth date for a podcast, then called Skeptically Speaking and now known as Science for the People (Wikipedia entry). Here’s more from the Science for the People About webpage,
Science for the People is a long-format interview podcast that explores the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.
Every week, our hosts sit down with science researchers, writers, authors, journalists, and experts to discuss science from the past, the science that affects our lives today, and how science might change our future.
Rachelle Saunders: Producer & Host
I love to learn new things, and say the word “fascinating” way too much. I like to talk about intersections and how science and critical thinking intersect with everyday life, politics, history, and culture. By day I’m a web developer, and I definitely listen to way too many podcasts.
Created in 2007 with the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant, Situating Science is a seven-year project promoting communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.
You can find out more about Situating Science’s final days in my August 16, 2013 posting where I included a lot of information about one of their last events titled, “Science and Society 2013 Symposium; Emerging Agendas for Citizens and the Sciences.”
The “think-tank” will dovetail nicely with a special symposium in Ottawa on Science and Society Oct. 21-23. For this symposium, the Cluster is partnering with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy to bring together scholars from various disciplines, public servants and policy workers to discuss key issues at the intersection of science and society. [emphasis mine] The discussions will be compiled in a document to be shared with stakeholders and the wider public.
The team will continue to seek support and partnerships for projects within the scope of its objectives. Among our top priorities are a partnership to explore sciences, technologies and their publics as well as new partnerships to build upon exchanges between scholars and institutions in India, Singapore and Canada.
The Situating Science folks did attempt to carry on the organization’s work by rebranding the organization to call it the Canadian Consortium for Situating Science and Technology (CCSST). It seems to have been a short-lived volunteer effort.
Meanwhile, the special symposium held in October 2013 appears to have been the springboard for another SSHRC funded multi-year initiative, this time focused on science collaborations between Canada, India, and Singapore, Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature from 2014 – 2017. Despite their sunset year having been in 2017, their homepage boasts news about a 2020 Congress and their Twitter feed is still active. Harking back, here’s what the project was designed to do, from the About Us page,
Welcome to our three year project that will establish a research network on “Cosmopolitanism” in science. It closely examines the actual types of negotiations that go into the making of science and its culture within an increasingly globalized landscape. This partnership is both about “cosmopolitanism and the local” and is, at the same time, cosmopolitan and local.
Anyone who reads this blog with any frequency will know that I often comment on the fact that when organizations such as the Council of Canadian Academies bring in experts from other parts of the world, they are almost always from the US or Europe. So, I was delighted to discover the Cosmopolitanism project and featured it in a February 19, 2015 posting.
Expose a hitherto largely Eurocentric scholarly community in Canada to widening international perspectives and methods,
Build on past successes at border-crossings and exchanges between the participants,
Facilitate a much needed nation-wide organization and exchange amongst Indian and South East Asian scholars, in concert with their Canadian counterparts, by integrating into an international network,
Open up new perspectives on the genesis and place of globalized science, and thereby
Offer alternative ways to conceptualize and engage globalization itself, and especially the globalization of knowledge and science.
Bring the managerial team together for joint discussion, research exchange, leveraging and planning – all in the aid of laying the grounds of a sustainable partnership
Eco Art (also known as ecological art or environmental art)
I’m of two minds as to whether I should have tried to stuff this into the art/sci subsection in part 2. On balance, I decided that this merited its own section and that part 2 was already overstuffed.
Let’s start in Newfoundland and Labrador with Marlene Creates (pronounced Kreets), here’s more about her from her website’s bio webpage,
Marlene Creates (pronounced “Kreets”) is an environmental artist and poet who works with photography, video, scientific and vernacular knowledge, walking and collaborative site-specific performance in the six-acre patch of boreal forest in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, where she lives.
For almost 40 years her work has been an exploration of the relationship between human experience, memory, language and the land, and the impact they have on each other. …
Currently her work is focused on the six acres of boreal forest where she lives in a ‘relational aesthetic’ to the land. This oeuvre includes Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002–2003, and several ongoing projects:
Marlene Creates received a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for “Lifetime Artistic Achievement” in 2019. …
An October 1, 2018 article by Yasmin Nurming-Por for Canadian Art magazine features 10 artists who focus on environmental and/or land art themes,
As part of her 2016 master’s thesis exhibition, Fredericton [New Brunswick] artist Gillian Dykeman presented the video Dispatches from the Feminist Utopian Future within a larger installation that imagined various canonical earthworks from the perspective of the future. It’s a project that addresses the inherent sense of timelessness in these massive interventions on the natural landscape from the perspective of contemporary land politics. … she proposes a kind of interaction with the invasive and often colonial gestures of modernist Land art, one that imagines a different future for these earthworks, where they are treated as alien in a landscape and as beacons from a feminist future.
If you have the time, I recommend reading the article in its entirety.
Oddly, I did not expect Vancouver to have such an active eco arts focus. The City of Vancouver Parks Board maintains an Environmental Art webpage on its site listing a number of current and past projects.
I cannot find the date for when this Parks Board initiative started but I did find a document produced prior to a Spring 2006 Arts & Ecology think tank held in Vancouver under the auspices of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Vancouver Foundation, and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (London UK).
In all likelihood, Vancouver Park Board’s Environmental Art webpage was produced after 2006.
I imagine the document and the think tank session helped to anchor any then current eco art projects and encouraged more projects.
While its early days were in 2008, EartHand Gleaners (Vancouver-based) wasn’t formally founded as an arts non-for-profit organization until 2013. You can find out more about them and their projects here.
Eco Art has been around for decades according to the eco art think tank document but it does seemed to have gained momentum here in Canada over the last decade.
Photography and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
Exploring the jack pine tight knit family tree. Credit: Dana Harris Brock University (2018)
Pictured are developing phloem, cambial, and xylem cells (blue), and mature xylem cells (red), in the outermost portion of a jack pine tree. This research aims to identify the influences of climate on the cellular development of the species at its northern limit in Yellowknife, NT. The differences in these cell formations is what creates the annual tree ring boundary.
Science Exposed is a photography contest for scientists which has been run since 2016 (assuming the Past Winners archive is a good indicator for the programme’s starting year).
The 2020 competition recently closed but public voting should start soon. It’s nice to see that NSERC is now making efforts to engage members of the general public rather than focusing its efforts solely on children. The UK’s ASPIRES project seems to support the idea that adults need to be more fully engaged with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) efforts as it found that children’s attitudes toward science are strongly influenced by their parents’ and relatives’ attitudes.(See my January 31, 2012 posting.)
Ingenious, the book and Ingenium, the science museums
To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, then Governor General David Johnston and Tom Jenkins (Chair of the board for Open Text and former Chair of the federal committee overseeing the ‘Review of Federal Support to R&’D [see my October 21, 2011 posting about the resulting report]) wrote a boo about Canada’s inventors and inventions.
Johnston and Jenkins jaunted around the country launching their book (I have more about their June 1, 2017 Vancouver visit in a May 30, 2017 posting; scroll down about 60% of the way]).
The book’s full title, “Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier ” outlines their thesis neatly.
Not all that long after the book was launched, there was a name change (thankfully) for the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC). It is now known as Ingenium (covered in my August 10, 2017 posting).
The reason that name change was such a relief (for those who don’t know) is that the corporation included three national science museums: Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, and (wait for it) Canada Science and Technology Museum. On the list of confusing names, this ranks very high for me. Again, I give thanks for the change from CSTMC to Ingenium, leaving the name for the museum alone.
2017 was also the year that the newly refurbished Canada Science and Technology Museum was reopened after more than three years (see my June 23, 2017 posting about the November 2017 reopening and my June 12, 2015 posting for more information about the situation that led to the closure).
A Saskatchewan lab, Convergence, Order of Canada, Year of Science, Animated Mathematics, a graphic novel, and new media
Since this section is jampacked, I’m using subheads.
Dr. Brian Eameshosts an artist-in-residence,Jean-Sebastien (JS) Gauthier at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine Eames Lab. A February 16, 2018 posting here featured their first collaboration together. It covered evolutionary biology, the synchrotron (Canadian Light Source [CLS]) in Saskatoon, and the ‘ins and outs’ of a collaboration between a scientist an artist. Presumably the art-in-residence position indicates that first collaboration went very well.
In January 2020, Brian kindly gave me an update on their current projects. Jean-Sebastin successfully coded an interactive piece for an exhibit at the 2019 Nuit Blanche Saskatoon event using Connect (Xbox). More recently, he got a VR [virtual reality] helmet for an upcoming project or two.
Our Glass is a work of interactive SciArt co-created by artist JS Gauthier and biologist Dr Brian F. Eames. It uses cutting-edge 3D microscopic images produced for artistic purposes at the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s only synchrotron facility. Our Glass engages viewers of all ages to peer within an hourglass showing how embryonic development compares among animals with whom we share a close genetic heritage.
Eames also mentioned they were hoping to hold an international SciArt Symposium at the University of Saskatchewan in 2021.
Cat Lau’s December 23, 2019 posting for the Science Borealis blog provides insight into Zaelzer-Perez’s relationship to science and art,
Cristian: I have had a relationship with art and science ever since I have had memory. As a child, I loved to do classifications, from grouping different flowers to collecting leaves by their shapes. At the same time, I really loved to draw them and for me, both things never looked different; they (art and science) have always worked together.
I started as a graphic designer, but the pursuit to learn about nature was never dead. At some point, I knew I wanted to go back to school to do research, to explore and learn new things. I started studying medical technologies, then molecular biology and then jumped into a PhD. At that point, my life as a graphic designer slipped down, because of the focus you have to give to the discipline. It seemed like every time I tried to dedicate myself to one thing, I would find myself doing the other thing a couple years later.
I came to Montreal to do my post-doc, but I had trouble publishing, which became problematic in getting a career. I was still loving what I was doing, but not seeing a future in that. Once again, art came back into my life and at the same time I saw that science was becoming really hard to understand and scientists were not doing much to bridge the gap.
For a writer of children’s science books, an appointment to the Order of Canada is a singular honour. I cannot recall a children’s science book writer previous to Shar Levine being appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada. Known as ‘The Science Lady‘, Levine was appointed in 2016. Here’s more from her Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,
Shar Levine (born 1953) is an award-winning, best selling Canadian children’s author, and designer.
Shar has written over 70 books and book/kits, primarily on hands-on science for children. For her work in Science literacy and Science promotion, Shar has been appointed to the 2016 Order of Canada. In 2015, she was recognized by the University of Alberta and received their Alumni Honour Award. Levine, and her co-author, Leslie Johnstone, were co-recipients of the Eve Savory Award for Science Communication from the BC Innovation Council (2006) and their book, Backyard Science, was a finalist for the Subaru Award, (hands on activity) from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science Books and Films (2005). The Ultimate Guide to Your Microscope was a finalist-2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Science Books and Films Prize Hands -On Science/Activity Books.
The Order of Canada is how our country honours people who make extraordinary contributions to the nation.
Since its creation in 1967—Canada’s centennial year—more than 7 000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. The contributions of these trailblazers are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country. Their grit and passion inspire us, teach us and show us the way forward. They exemplify the Order’s motto: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”).
Year of Science in British Columbia
In the Fall of 2010, the British Columbia provincial government announced a Year of Science (coinciding with the school year) . Originally, it was supposed to be a provincial government-wide initiative but the idea percolated through any number of processes and emerged as a year dedicated to science education for youth (according to the idea’s originator, Moira Stilwell who was then a Member of the Legislative Assembly [MLA]’ I spoke with her sometime in 2010 or 2011).
As the ‘year’ drew to a close, there was a finale ($1.1M in funding), which was featured here in a July 6, 2011 posting.
The larger portion of the money ($1M) was awarded to Science World while $100,000 ($0.1 M) was given to the Pacific Institute of Mathematical Sciences To my knowledge there have been no followup announcements about how the money was used.
Animation and mathematics
In Toronto, mathematician Dr. Karan Singh enjoyed a flurry of interest due to his association with animator Chris Landreth and their Academy Award (Oscar) Winning 2004 animated film, Ryan. They have continued to work together as members of the Dynamic Graphics Project (DGP) Lab at the University of Toronto. Theirs is not the only Oscar winning work to emerge from one or more of the members of the lab. Jos Stam, DGP graduate and adjunct professor won his third in 2019.
A graphic novel and medical promise
An academic at Simon Fraser University since 2015, Coleman Nye worked with three other women to produce a graphic novel about medical dilemmas in a genre described as’ ethno-fiction’.
Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution (2017) by Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye, two anthropologists and Art by Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer, two artists.
As young girls in Cairo, Anna and Layla strike up an unlikely friendship that crosses class, cultural, and religious divides. Years later, Anna learns that she may carry the hereditary cancer gene responsible for her mother’s death. Meanwhile, Layla’s family is faced with a difficult decision about kidney transplantation. Their friendship is put to the test when these medical crises reveal stark differences in their perspectives…until revolutionary unrest in Egypt changes their lives forever.
The first book in a new series [ethnoGRAPIC; a series of graphic novels from the University of Toronto Press], Lissa brings anthropological research to life in comic form, combining scholarly insights and accessible, visually-rich storytelling to foster greater understanding of global politics, inequalities, and solidarity.
I hope to write more about this graphic novel in a future posting.
I don’t know if this could be described as a movement yet but it’s certainly an interesting minor development. Two new media centres have hosted, in the last four years, art/sci projects and/or workshops. It’s unexpected given this definition from the Wikipedia entry for New Media (Note: Links have been removed),
New media are forms of media that are computational and rely on computers for redistribution. Some examples of new media are computer animations, computer games, human-computer interfaces, interactive computer installations, websites, and virtual worlds.
In Manitoba, the Video Pool Media Arts Centre hosted a February 2016 workshop Biology as a New Art Medium: Workshop with Marta De Menezes. De Menezes, an artist from Portugal, gave workshops and talks in both Winnipeg (Manitoba) and Toronto (Ontario). Here’s a description for the one in Winnipeg,
This workshop aims to explore the multiple possibilities of artistic approaches that can be developed in relation to Art and Microbiology in a DIY situation. A special emphasis will be placed on the development of collaborative art and microbiology projects where the artist has to learn some biological research skills in order to create the artwork. The course will consist of a series of intense experimental sessions that will give raise to discussions on the artistic, aesthetic and ethical issues raised by the art and the science involved. Handling these materials and organisms will provoke a reflection on the theoretical issues involved and the course will provide background information on the current diversity of artistic discourses centred on biological sciences, as well a forum for debate.
VIVO Media Arts Centre in Vancouver hosted the Invasive Systems in 2019. From the exhibition page,
Picture this – a world where AI invades human creativity, bacteria invade our brains, and invisible technological signals penetrate all natural environments. Where invasive species from plants to humans transform spaces where they don’t belong, technology infiltrates every aspect of our daily lives, and the waste of human inventions ravages our natural environments.
This weekend festival includes an art-science exhibition [emphasis mine], a hands-on workshop (Sat, separate registration required), and guided discussions and tours by the curator (Sat/Sun). It will showcase collaborative works by three artist/scientist pairs, and independent works by six artists. Opening reception will be on Friday, November 8 starting at 7pm; curator’s remarks and performance by Edzi’u at 7:30pm and 9pm.
New Westminster’s (British Columbia) New Media Gallery recently hosted an exhibition, ‘winds‘ from June 20 – September 29, 2019 that could be described as an art/sci exhibition,
Landscape and weather have long shared an intimate connection with the arts. Each of the works here is a landscape: captured, interpreted and presented through a range of technologies. The four artists in this exhibition have taken, as their material process, the movement of wind through physical space & time. They explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology.
These works have been created by what might be understood as a sort of scientific method or process that involves collecting data, acute observation, controlled experiments and the incorporation of measurements and technologies that control or collect motion, pressure, sound, pattern and the like. …
Council of Canadian Academies, Publishing, and Open Access
Established in 2005, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) (Wikipedia entry) is tasked by various departments and agencies to answer their queries about science issues that could affect the populace and/or the government. In 2014, the CCA published a report titled, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands. It was in response to the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (now called Ingenium), Industry Canada, and Natural Resources Canada and their joint request that the CCA conduct an in-depth, independent assessment to investigate the state of Canada’s science culture.
I gave a pretty extensive analysis of the report, which I delivered in four parts: Part 1, Part 2 (a), Part 2 (b), and Part 3. In brief, the term ‘science culture’ seems to be specifically, i.e., it’s not used elsewhere in the world (that we know of), Canadian. We have lots to be proud of. I was a little disappointed by the lack of culture (arts) producers on the expert panel and, as usual, I bemoaned the fact that the international community included as reviewers, members of the panel, and as points for comparison were drawn from the usual suspects (US, UK, or somewhere in northern Europe).
Science publishing in Canada took a bit of a turn in 2010, when the country’s largest science publisher, NRC (National Research Council) Research Publisher was cut loose from the government and spun out into the private, *not-for-profit publisher*, Canadian Science Publishing (CSP). From the CSP Wikipedia entry,
Since 2010, Canadian Science Publishing has acquired five new journals:
Canadian Science Publishing offers researchers options to make their published papers freely available (open access) in their standard journals and in their open access journal, (from the CSP Wikipedia entry)
Arctic Science aims to provide a collaborative approach to Arctic research for a diverse group of users including government, policy makers, the general public, and researchers across all scientific fields
FACETS is Canada’s first open access multidisciplinary science journal, aiming to advance science by publishing research that the multi-faceted global community of research. FACETS is the official journal of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science.
Anthropocene Coasts aims to understand and predict the effects of human activity, including climate change, on coastal regions.
In addition, Canadian Science Publishing strives to make their content accessible through the CSP blog that includes plain language summaries of featured research. The open-access journal FACETS similarly publishes plain language summaries.
CSP announced (on Twitter) a new annual contest in 2016,
New CONTEST! Announcing Visualizing Science! Share your science images & win great prizes! Full details on the blog http://cdnsciencepub.com/blog/2016-csp-image-contest-visualizing-science.aspx1:45 PM · Sep 19, 2016·TweetDeck
The 2016 blog posting is no longer accessible. Oddly for a contest of this type, I can’t find an image archive for previous contests. Regardless, a 2020 competition has been announced for Summer 2020. There are some details on the VISUALIZING SCIENCE 2020 webpage but some are missing, e.g., no opening date, no deadline. They are encouraging you to sign up for notices.
Back to open access, in a January 22, 2016 posting I featured news about Montreal Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute [MNI] in Québec, Canada) and its then new policy giving researchers world wide access to its research and made a pledge that it would not seek patents for its work.
Fish, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Prince Edward Island
AquAdvantage’s genetically modified salmon was approved for consumption in Canada according to my May 20, 2016 posting. The salmon are produced/farmed by a US company (AquaBounty) but the the work of genetically modifying Atlantic salmon with genetic material from the Chinook (a Pacific ocean salmon) was mostly undertaken at Memorial University in Newfoundland & Labrador.
The process by which work done in Newfoundland & Labrador becomes the property of a US company is one that’s well known here in Canada. The preliminary work and technology is developed here and then purchased by a US company, which files patents, markets, and profits from it. Interestingly, the fish farms for the AquAdvantage salmon are mostly (two out of three) located on Prince Edward Island.
Intriguingly, 4.5 tonnes of the modified fish were sold for consumption in Canada without consumers being informed (see my Sept. 13, 2017 posting, scroll down about 45% of the way).
It’s not all sunshine and roses where science culture in Canada is concerned. Incidents where Canadians are not informed let alone consulted about major changes in the food supply and other areas are not unusual. Too many times, scientists, politicians, and government policy experts want to spread news about science without any response from the recipients who are in effect viewed as a ‘tabula rasa’ or a blank page.
Tying it all up
This series has been my best attempt to document in some fashion or another the extraordinary range of science culture in Canada from roughly 2010-19. Thank you! This series represents a huge amount of work and effort to develop science culture in Canada and I am deeply thankful that people give so much to this effort.
I have inevitably missed people and organizations and events. For that I am very sorry. (There is an addendum to the series as it’s been hard to stop but I don’t expect to add anything or anyone more.)
I want to mention but can’t expand upon,the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which was established in the 2017 federal budget (see a March 31, 2017 posting about the Vector Institute and Canada’s artificial intelligence sector).
Science Borealis, the Canadian science blog aggregator, owes its existence to Canadian Science Publishing for the support (programming and financial) needed to establish itself and, I believe, that support is still ongoing. I think thanks are also due to Jenny Ryan who was working for CSP and championed the initiative. Jenny now works for Canadian Blood Services. Interestingly, that agency added a new programme, a ‘Lay Science Writing Competition’ in 2018. It’s offered n partnership with two other groups, the Centre for Blood Research at the University of British Columbia and Science Borealis
While the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada does not fit into my time frame as it lists as its founding date December 1, 1868 (18 months after confederation), the organization did celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2018.
Vancouver’s Electric Company often produces theatrical experiences that cover science topics such as the one featured in my June 7, 2013 posting, You are very star—an immersive transmedia experience.
Let’s Talk Science (Wikipedia entry) has been heavily involved with offering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programming both as part of curricular and extra-curricular across Canada since 1993.
This organization predates confederation having been founded in 1849 by Sir Sandford Fleming and Kivas Tully in Toronto. for surveyors, civil engineers, and architects. It is the Royal Canadian Institute of Science (Wikipedia entry)_. With almost no interruption, they have been delivering a regular series of lectures on the University of Toronto campus since 1913.
The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is a more recent beast. In 1999 Mike Lazirides, founder of Research In Motion (now known as Blackberry Limited), acted as both founder and major benefactor for this institute in Waterloo, Ontario. They offer a substantive and imaginative outreach programmes such as Arts and Culture: “Event Horizons is a series of unique and extraordinary events that aim to stimulate and enthral. It is a showcase of innovative work of the highest international standard, an emotional, intellectual, and creative experience. And perhaps most importantly, it is a social space, where ideas collide and curious minds meet.”
While gene-editing hasn’t seemed to be top-of-mind for anyone other than those in the art/sci community that may change. My April 26, 2019 posting focused on what appears to be a campaign to reverse Canada’s criminal ban on human gene-editing of inheritable cells (germline). With less potential for controversy, there is a discussion about somatic gene therapies and engineered cell therapies. A report from the Council of Canadian is due in the Fall of 2020. (The therapies being discussed do not involve germline editing.)
I recently stumbled across ‘un balados’ (podcast), titled, 20%. Started in January 2019 by the magazine, Québec Science, the podcast is devoted to women in science and technology. 20%, the podcast’s name, is the statistic representing the number of women in those fields. “Dans les domaines de la science et de la technologie, les femmes ne forment que 20% de la main-d’oeuvre.” (from the podcast webpage) The podcast is a co-production between “Québec Science [founded in 1962] et l’Acfas [formerly, l’Association Canadienne-Française pour l’Avancement des Sciences, now, Association francophone pour le savoir], en collaboration avec la Commission canadienne pour l’UNESCO, L’Oréal Canada et la radio Choq.ca.” (also from the podcast webpage)
Does it mean anything?
There have been many developments since I started writing this series in late December 2019. In January 2020, Iran shot down one of its own planes. That error killed some 176 people , many of them (136 Canadians and students) bound for Canada. The number of people who were involved in the sciences, technology, and medicine was striking.
It was a shocking loss and will reverberate for quite some time. There is a memorial posting here (January 13, 2020), which includes links to another memorial posting and an essay.
As I write this we are dealing with a pandemic, COVID-19, which has us all practicing physical and social distancing. Congregations of large numbers are expressly forbidden. All of this is being done in a bid to lessen the passage of the virus, SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19.
In the short term at least, it seems that much of what I’ve described in these five parts (and the addendum) will undergo significant changes or simply fade away.
As for the long term, with this last 10 years having hosted the most lively science culture scene I can ever recall, I’m hopeful that science culture in Canada will do more than survive but thrive.
*”for-profit publisher, Canadian Science Publishing (CSP)” corrected to “not-for-profit publisher, Canadian Science Publishing (CSP)” and this comment “Not bad for a for-profit business, eh?” removed on April 29, 2020 as per Twitter comments,
Hi Maryse, thank you for alerting us to your blog. To clarify, Canadian Science Publishing is a not-for-profit publisher. Thank you as well for sharing our image contest. We’ve updated the contest page to indicate that the contest opens July 2020!
Last week (specifically, Tuesday, March 3, 2020), someone moved away from me during a class. I’d sneezed.
The irony of the situation is that of the two of us, with my lung issues I’d be the one most at risk of getting very ill and/or dying from COVID-19. ( Yes, I confirmed that was the reason she’d moved.  The therapeutic nanoparticles news item is coming later) Here are the risk factors to take into account (from the US Centers for Disease Control’s People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19 webpage,
Older adults [Note: In one report the age range was stated as ‘people over 70’]
People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
I’m not suggesting that all precautions be abandoned but it would seem that panic might not be called for. Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, faculty in its division of health policy and public health, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, has written a calming March 4, 2020 article (COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think; Don’t hoard masks and food. Figure out how to help seniors and the immunosuppressed stay healthy.) for Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed],
There are many compelling reasons to conclude that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is not nearly as deadly as is currently feared. But COVID-19 panic has set in nonetheless. You can’t find hand sanitizer in stores, and N95 face masks are being sold online for exorbitant prices, never mind that neither is the best way to protect against the virus (yes, just wash your hands). The public is behaving as if this epidemic is the next Spanish flu, which is frankly understandable given that initial reports have staked COVID-19 mortality at about 2–3 percent, quite similar to the 1918 pandemic that killed tens of millions of people.
Allow me to be the bearer of good news. These frightening numbers are unlikely to hold. The true case fatality rate, known as CFR, of this virus is likely to be far lower than current reports suggest. Even some lower estimates, such as the 1 percent death rate recently mentioned by the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, likely substantially overstate the case. [emphases mine]
But the most straightforward and compelling evidence that the true case fatality rate of SARS-CoV-2 is well under 1 percent comes not from statistical trends and methodological massage, but from data from the Diamond Princess cruise outbreak and subsequent quarantine off the coast of Japan.
A quarantined boat is an ideal—if unfortunate—natural laboratory to study a virus. Many variables normally impossible to control are controlled. We know that all but one patient boarded the boat without the virus. We know that the other passengers were healthy enough to travel. We know their whereabouts and exposures. While the numbers coming out of China are scary, we don’t know how many of those patients were already ill for other reasons. How many were already hospitalized for another life-threatening illness and then caught the virus? How many were completely healthy, caught the virus, and developed a critical illness? In the real world, we just don’t know.
Here’s the problem with looking at mortality numbers in a general setting: In China, 9 million people die per year, which comes out to 25,000 people every single day, or around 1.5 million people over the past two months alone. A significant fraction of these deaths results from diseases like emphysema/COPD, lower respiratory infections, and cancers of the lung and airway whose symptoms are clinically indistinguishable from the nonspecific symptoms seen in severe COVID-19 cases. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the death rate from COVID-19 in China spiked precisely among the same age groups in which these chronic diseases first become common. During the peak of the outbreak in China in January and early February, around 25 patients per day were dying with SARS-CoV-2. Most were older patients in whom the chronic diseases listed above are prevalent. Most deaths occurred in Hubei province, an area in which lung cancer and emphysema/COPD are significantly higher than national averages in China, a country where half of all men smoke. How were doctors supposed to sort out which of those 25 out of 25,000 daily deaths were solely due to coronavirus, and which were more complicated? What we need to know is how many excess deaths this virus causes.
This all suggests that COVID-19 is a relatively benign disease for most young people, and a potentially devastating one for the old and chronically ill, albeit not nearly as risky as reported. Given the low mortality rate among younger patients with coronavirus—zero in children 10 or younger among hundreds of cases in China, and 0.2-0.4 percent in most healthy nongeriatric adults (and this is still before accounting for what is likely to be a high number of undetected asymptomatic cases)—we need to divert our focus away from worrying about preventing systemic spread among healthy people—which is likely either inevitable, or out of our control—and commit most if not all of our resources toward protecting those truly at risk of developing critical illness and even death: everyone over 70, and people who are already at higher risk from this kind of virus.
This still largely comes down to hygiene and isolation. But in particular, we need to focus on the right people and the right places. Nursing homes, not schools. Hospitals, not planes. We need to up the hygienic and isolation ante primarily around the subset of people who can’t simply contract SARS-CoV-2 and ride it out the way healthy people should be able to.
Curtis Kim of Vancouver, Canada, has created a website dedicated to tracking the statistics and information about COVID-19 in Canada and around the world. Here’s more about Kim and the website from a March 8, 2020 article by Megan Devlin for the Daily Hive,
Curtis Kim, who studied Computer Systems Technology at the British Columbia Institute of Technology [BCIT], launched the site this week after getting frustrated he was spending so much time on various websites looking for daily coronavirus updates.
The site breaks down the number of cases in Canada, the number of deaths (zero in Canada so far), and the number of people who have recovered. Further down, it provides the same stats for global COVID-19 cases.
There’s also a colour-coded map showing where cases are distributed, and a feed of latest news articles about the virus. Kim also included information about symptoms and how to contact Canadian public health services.
Kim is looking for work and given what I’ve seen of his COVID-19 website, he should have no difficulty. Although I think it might be an idea for him to explain how the ‘lethality’ rate on his website has been obtained since Faust who seems to have more directly relevant experience suggests in his article that the numbers are highly problematic,
My name is Curtis, recently graduated from BCIT. I thought it would be a serious worldwide issue considering the speed of the spread of this virus ever since this COVID-19 occurred. I frequently googled to check up the current status by going through many websites and felt I was wasting time repeatedly searching with same keywords and for sure I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. That’s why I started creating this application. It provides up-to-date information on the COVID-19 broken by province and country around the world, key contact information, and latest news. I like to help people, and want them to understand this situation easily using this application. Hopefully this situation improves soon.
If you have any further inquries about the information on this web application, Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
At about 11:45 am (PT) on March 9, 2020, Kim’s COVID-19 website was updated to include one death in Canada. As you might expect, ti was a resident in a long term care home. Wanyee Li’s March 9, 2020 article for The Star presents the news,
A resident at a long-term care home experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak in North Vancouver has died after contracting the virus, B.C. health officials confirmed Monday [March 9, 2020].
It is the first reported death in Canada linked to the virus.
The outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Centre has so far been linked to three community transmission cases of the virus.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry confirmed five new cases of COVID-19 in B.C. on Monday [March 9, 2020], putting the total in the province at 32.
The five new cases include one health-care worker, two people who are close contacts of an existing case, one person who recently returned from travel to Iran and another who was in Italy recently.
Officials are conducting an investigation into the three community transmission cases at the long-term care home to determine how a health care worker contracted the virus.
I looked up the population figures for the province of British Columbia (BC; Wikipedia entry for Demographics of British Columbia). As of the 2016 census, there were 4,648,055 people in the province. Assuming that population number holds, 67 cases in all of Canada (with 27 cases in BC) of COVID-19 don’t seem like big numbers.
We should definitely take precautions and be careful but there’s no need to panic.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.
Since the outbreak began in late 2019, researchers have been racing to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, which is a strain from a family of viruses known as coronavirus for their crown-like shape.
Northeastern Ûniversity] chemical engineer Thomas Webster, who specializes in developing nano-scale medicine and technology to treat diseases, is part of a contingency of scientists that are contributing ideas and technology to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
The idea of using nanoparticles, Webster says, is that the virus behind COVID-19 consists of a structure of a similar scale as his nanoparticles. At that scale, matter is ultra-small, about ten thousand times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair.
Webster is proposing particles of similar sizes that could attach to SARS-CoV-2 viruses, disrupting their structure with a combination of infrared light treatment. That structural change would then halt the ability of the virus to survive and reproduce in the body.
“You have to think in this size range,” says Webster, Art Zafiropoulo Chair of chemical engineering at Northeastern. “In the nanoscale size range, if you want to detect viruses, if you want to deactivate them.”
Finding and neutralizing viruses with nanomedicine is at the core of what Webster and other researchers call theranostics, which focuses on combining therapy and diagnosis. Using that approach, his lab has specialized in nanoparticles to fight the microbes that cause influenza and tuberculosis.
“It’s not just having one approach to detect whether you have a virus and another approach to use it as a therapy,” he says, “but having the same particle, the same approach, for both your detection and therapy.”
I wish Webster good luck. As for the rest us, let’s wash our hands and keep calm.