Tag Archives: Vancouver Biennale

ArtSci Salon visits the Society for Literature, Science & the Arts 2018 Meeting in Toronto (Canada) while Vancouver’s Curiosity Collider provides a November 2018 update

I have two art/sci (or sciart) announcements, one concerns an event and the other is a news update.

Toronto’s ArtSci Salon and the Society of Literature, Science & the Arts (SLSA) 2018 Meeting

How could I not have stumbled across SLSA until now? Better late than never but the 2018 meeting/conference in Toronto, Canada is the 32nd of this annual event. (sigh)

Getting on to the important points, the ArtSci Salon is hosting a special roundtable as part of the conference (from a November 14, 2018 announcement received via email),

ArtSci Salon has organized a special roundtable at the annual SLSA
(Society for Science Literature and the Arts) which will take place in
Toronto this week.

The roundtable is public and will be held at OCADU [Ontario College of Art and Design University] in the gallery on 49 McCaul Street.

Re-locating the rational: on the re-making of categories through art and science (or: the artist is out of mind!)

A roundtable and a mobile/pop-up exhibition organized by ArtSci Salon

The world always exceeds our conception of it (Shotwell, 2016)

Coinciding with this year’s SLSA “Out of Mind” conference in Toronto, ArtSci Salon is proposing a panel/roundtable on “out-of-mindedness” as a way to re-think categories, and to disrupt the disciplinary and methodological status quo through which we normally see science and the humanities unfolding in academic contexts. We plan to do it through a pop-up exhibition featuring the works of local artists and members of SLSA.

What to do when the sciences and the humanities loose [sic] their ability to fully grasp, and sometimes even speak of, phenomena that have inevitably become too complex, too diffuse to be simplified through a model or a formula, or to be seized and summarized by one discipline?

This initiative is not designed to propose a set of new categories, but to pose a series of open questions, highlighting the necessity to conduct collaborative research between artistic practices and scientific research. We interpret the idea of “out of mind” as a strategy. In fact, using the arts as our preferred mode of expression, we believe that we ought to step out of the traditional mind configurations and fixed wiring in order to seize new ways to come to term with the multiplicities characterizing current environmental transformations. These occurrences have proved to be connected with nature, culture, and society in too many intricate ways, to the extent that neither science, nor technological methods are able to fully comprehend them.

Roundtable Participants:

Roberta Buiani (Chair)

Erika Biddles

Jenifer Wightman

Stephanie Rothenberg

Adam Zaretsky

Kathy High

Dolores Steinman

Here’s the poster:

One more logistical detail,

[T]he roundtable will be at 10:30-12:00 noon [Friday, November 16, 2018] followed by a small tour of the mobile pop-up exhibition[.]

For the curious, here’s the SLSA website and the SLSA 2018 [Meeting]—Out of Your Mind website. Unexpectedly, the University of Toronto is not one of the conference hosts, instead we have the University of Waterloo [Waterloo, Ontario] and York University [Toronto, Ontario] as joint hosts with OCAD University—Canada’s oldest art and design institution—partnering with the Rochester Institute of Technology (New York state, US).

Vancouver’s Curiosity Collider

Coincidentally on the same day I received the ArtSci Salon event information, I received a November 14, 2018 update for Vancouver’s art/sci (or sciart) organization, Curiosity Collider. From the update received via email,

Collider Update

Next events (save-the-date), call for submissions, and other art+science in town

Collisions Festival:
Meet Up & Hang Out

Are you an artist working in the sci/art genre? A scientist interested in collaborating with artists? Or one who wears both hats?

In the fall of 2019, the Curiosity Collider will be hosting our inaugural Sci-Art festival The Collisions Festival; the first theme will be Invasive Systems. The call for submission will be open in spring, 2019. The theme is meant to be broad in scope and not limited to any specific scientific subject/discipline; participants are encouraged to suggest various interpretation of the theme.

We would like to invite all artists and scientists who are interested in participating or potentially submitting a proposal to join us at this meet up event, chat about possible collaborations, and learn more about projects and details on “collaborative work” proposals we are looking for.

RSVP now so we know how many to expect.. This is a casual drop in event; feel free to stay, or just stop by and say hi!

Notice that RSVP? Taken with the next announcement, something becomes evident,

Join the Collider Team!

Are you passionate about art and science? Want to be part of the awesome Curiosity Collider team to help create new ways to experience science? 

We are now inviting applications for the following positions:

Read more on our volunteer page. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

In the old days a ‘development director’ was a ‘fundraiser’. That RSVP? Likely, they’re trying to establish the size of their potential audience so they can get government grants. Audience size is important to corporate or ‘other’ funders but if you want a government grant you need numbers.

Getting back to the update, this is a grouping of Curiosity Collider’s latest hits,

#ColliderCafe: Art. Science. Cadence.

Did you miss our most recent Collider Cafe event? You can now chek out the talks by Singer-songwriter Devon More, Biologists Wayne Maddison and David Maddison, as well as Integrated Media Artist Victoria Gibson on our YouTube Channel.

Check out the talks now.

Et al 3: Collaboration Process for Quantum Futures

Nerd Nite, Science Slam, and Curiosity Collider joined forces for the 3rd edition of Et al: the ultimate bar science night event. During the event, Quantum Physicist James Day and our Creative Managing Director Char Hoyt gave attendees an overview of the collaboration process that made Night shift: Quantum Futures, an event curated by CC and hosted at the Museum of Anthropology, possible.

Missed the show? Watch the presentation on our YouTube channel now.

While they don’t seem to have any details, there is a date for the next Collider Cafe,

Save the Date:
Next Collider Cafe

Our next Collider Cafe will be on Wednesday, January 23 at Cafe Deux Soleils. #ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet. Discover. Connect. Create.

Are you curious? Join us to explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

Finally, a miscellaneous listing of related events being held in Vancouver, mostly, this November,

Looking for more art+science in town?

  • November 17 (Victoria) Science Writers and Communicators of Canada is hosting a workshop on science writing in an age of reconciliation: What science writers can learn from indigenous community members about better representation and relationships. Only a few spots left! Register now.
  • November 15-18 CC friend Dzee Louise will open her studio during the East Side Cultural Crawl! Drop by at studio #5 just at the top of the stairs of the William Clark Building at 1310 William Street (on the corner of Clark).
  • November 21 Natural History (Paleoart) Illustrator Julius Csotonyi will present a public lecture at the Vancouver Public Library (Kits branch) on the mutually beneficial affair between science and art.
  • November 21 Our friends at Nerd Nite Vancouver is hosting another awesome event next week, including a presentation by artist Michael Markowsky who will talk about how he ends up “Painting on the Moon”. Get your tickets now!
  • Until December 15 Vancouver Biennale’s CURIOUS IMAGININGS continues…check out the exhibition that will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar. Let us know about your art+science events by emailing info@curiositycollider.org.

I did write a preview (June 18, 2018) for the last event on the list, Curious Imaginings, which included some of the latest science on xenotransplantation and chimeras (i.e., examples of  emerging biotechnology). That’s all folks!

The sense of beauty: an art/science film about CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in Vancouver, Canada; art/sci September in Toronto (Canada), a science at the bar night in Vancouver (Canada), and a festival in Calgary (Canada)

Compared to five or more years ago, there’s a lollapalooza of art/sci (or sciart) events coming up in September 2018. Of course, it’s helpful if you live in or are visiting Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary at the right time.  All of these events occur from mid September (roughly) to the end of September. In no particular date order:

Sense of beauty in Vancouver

The September 10, 2018 Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia invitation (received via email) offered more tease than information. Happily, the evite webpage for “The Sense of Beauty: Art and Science at CERN” (2017) by Valerio Jalongo filled in the details,

The Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia

Invites you to the screening of the documentary

“The Sense of Beauty: Art and Science at CERN” (2017) by Valerio Jalongo

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2018 at 6:30 pm

The CINEMATHEQUE – 1131 Howe Street, Vancouver

Duration of film: 75’. Director in attendance; Q&A with the film director to follow the screening

Free Admission

RSVP: info@dantesocietybc.ca

Director Jalongo will discuss the making of his documentary in a seminar open to the public on September 24 (1:00-2:30 pm) at UBC  [University of British Columbia] (Buchanan Penthouse, *1866 Main Maill, Block C, 5th floor*, Vancouver).

The Sense of Beauty is the story of an unprecedented experiment that involves scientists from throughout the world collaborating around the largest machine ever constructed by human beings: the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). As the new experiment at CERN proceeds in its exploration of the mysterious energy that animates the universe, scientists and artists guide us towards the shadow line where science and art, in different ways, pursue truth and beauty.

Some of these men and women believe in God, while others believe only in experiment and doubt. But in their search for truth they are all alert to an elusive sixth – or seventh – sense: the sense of beauty. An unmissable opportunity for lovers of science, of beauty, or of both.

Rome-born Valerio Jalongo is a teacher, screenwriter and director who works in cinema and TV, for which he created works of fiction and award-winning documentaries. Among them: Sulla mia pelle (On My Skin, 2003) and La scuola è finita (2010), starring Valeria Golino, on the difficulties facing public schools in Italy.

This event is presented by the Dante Alighieri Society of BC in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver and in association with ARPICO (www.arpico.ca), the Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada.

RSVP: info@dantesocietybc.ca

I searched for more information both about the film and about the seminar at UBC. I had no luck with the UBC seminar but I did find more about the film. There’s an April (?) 2017 synopsis by Luciano Barisone on the Vision du Réel website,

From one cave to another. In prehistoric times, human beings would leave paintings in caves to show their amazement and admiration for the complexity of the world. These reproductions of natural forms were the results of an act of creation and also of mystical gestures which appropriated the soul of things. In another gigantic and modern den, the immense CERN laboratory, the same thing is happening today, a combination of enthralled exploration of the cosmos and an attempt to control it. Valerio Jalongo’s film tackles the big questions that have fascinated poets, artists and philosophers since the dawn of time. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? The scientists at CERN attempt to answer them through machines that explore matter and search for the origins of life. In their conversations or their words to camera, the meaning of existence thus seems to become a pure question of the laws of physics and mathematical formulae. If only for solving the mystery of the universe a sixth sense is necessary. That of beauty…

There’s also a February 5, 2018 essay by Stefano Caggiano for Interni, which uses a description of the film to launch into a paean to Italian design,

The success of the documentary The Sense of Beauty by Valerio Jalongo, which narrates the ‘aesthetic’ side of the physicists at CERN when faced with the fundamental laws of nature, proves that the yearning for beauty is not just an aspect of art, but something shared by all human efforts to interpret reality.

It is no coincidence that the scientists themselves define the LHC particle accelerator (27 km) as a grand machine for beauty, conceived to investigate the meaning of things, not to perform some practical function. In fact, just as matter can be perceived only through form, and form only if supported by matter (Aristotle already understood this), so the laws of physics can be glimpsed only when they are applied to reality.

This is why in the Large Hadron Collider particles are accelerated to speeds close to that of light, reconstructing the matter-energy conditions just a few instants after the Big Bang. Only in this way is it possible to glimpse the hidden fundamental laws of the universe. It is precisely this evanescence that constitutes ‘beauty.’

The quivering of the form that reveals itself in the matter that conceals it, and which – given the fact that everything originates in the Big Bang – is found everywhere, in the most faraway stars and the closest objects: you just have to know how to prove it, grasp it, how to wait. Because this is the only way to establish relations with beauty: not perceiving it but awaiting it. Respecting its way of offering itself, which consists in denying itself.

Charging the form of an object with this sensation of awaiting, then, means catalyzing the ultimate and primary sense of beauty. And it is what is held in common by the work of the five Italian designers nominated for the Rising Talent Awards of Maison & Object 2018 (with Kensaku Oshiro as the only non-Italian designer, though he does live and work in Milan).

There’s a trailer (published by CERN on November 7, 2017,

It’s in both Italian and English with subtitles throughout, should you need them.

*The address for the Buchanan Penthouse was corrected from: 2329 West Mall to 1866 Main Maill, Block C, 5th floor on Sept. 17, 2018.

Toronto’s ArtSci Salon at Nuit Blanche, Mycology, Wild Bees and Art+Tech!

From a Tuesday, September 11, 2018 Art/Sci Salon announcement (received via email),

Baba Yaga Collective and ArtSci Salon Present:
Chaos Fungorum

In 1747, Carl Linnaeus, known as the “father of taxonomy”, observed
that the seeds of fungus moved in water like fish until “..by a law of
nature thus far unheard of and surpassing all human understanding..,”
they changed back to plant in their adult life.

He proceeded to include fungi in the new genus of “Chaos”. But why
delimiting fungi within categories and boundaries when it is exactly
their fluidity that make them so interesting?

Chaos Fungorum draws on the particular position occupied by fungi and
other hybrid organisms: neither plant nor animal, fungi extend across,
and can entertain, communications and collaborations between animal,
human and industrial realms.

Mixing different artistic practices and media, the artists featured in
this exhibition seek to move beyond rigid comprehensions of the living
by working with, rather than merely shaping, sculpting and manipulating
plants, microorganisms and fungi. Letting the non-human speak is to move
away from an anthropocentric approach to the world: it not only opens to
new rewarding artistic practices, but it also fosters new ideas of
sustainable coexistence, new unusual life collaborations and
adaptations, and new forms of communications and languages.

THE EXHIBITION
September 26 – October 7, 2018

Baba Yaga Collective 906 Queen Street West @Crawford, Toronto

info@babayagacollective.ca

FEATURING

BIO.CHROME COLLECTIVE
Robyn Crouch • Mellissa Fisher • Shavon Madden
Tracy Maurice • Tosca Teran • Alexis Williams

SPECIAL GUEST
Whitefeather Hunter

SPECIAL NUIT BLANCHE OPENING RECEPTION
September 29
6:00 – 9:00 pm

6:30pm: Artsci Salon introduction with Roberta Buiani and Stephen Morris
rethinking categories and the “non-human” in art and science

Followed by artist remarks.
Scientists from the University of Toronto will act as respondent.

9:30pm onward: Tosca Teran & Andrei Gravelle of Nanotopia [emphasis mine]

BIO-SONIFICATIONS: NON-HUMAN COLLABORATIONS Mycelium to MIDI •

Midnight Mushroom music live performance

This Special program is co-presented by The Baba Yaga Collective and
ArtSci Salon. For more information contact artscisalon@gmail.com
https://www.facebook.com/events/1763778620414561/

 All the Buzz on Wild Bee Club!
Summer Speaker Series

Wed Sept 19 at 7pm
High Park Nature Centre,
All the Buzz on Wild Bee Club! – Summer Speaker Series

The speaker series will feature the club’s biologist/leader SUSAN FRYE.
A major component of this club will use the SONIC SOLITARIES AUDIO BEE
CABINET  – an observable nest site for bees in OURSpace – to encompass a
sensory experience with stem nesting bees and wasps, and to record
weekly activity at the cabinet. Pairing magnified views in tandem with
amplified sound via headphones, the cabinet facilitates an enhanced
perception of its tiny inhabitants: solitary bees and wasps and other
nest biota in action, up close. As citizen scientists, we can gather and
record observations to compile them into a database that will contribute
to our growing understanding of native bees, the native (and non-native)
plants they use for food and nest material sources, their co-evolution,
and how pollination in a park and restored habitat setting is
facilitated by native bees.

Fri, Sept 21, 8pm
Music Gallery, 918 Bathurst (their new location) –
Trio Wow & Flutter
with Bea Labikova, fujara, saxophones,
Kayla Milmine-Abbott, soprano saxophone,
Sarah Peebles, shō, cracklebox, amplifiers.

Call for Participants: Art+Tech Jam

ChangeUp’s Art+Tech Jam
September 21-23

This three days event will unite a diverse group of artists and
technologists in an intensive, collaborative three-day creation period
and culminating showcase (public exhibition and interdisciplinary rave).

ChangeUo is currently accepting applicants from tech and arts/culture
spaces of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels.
Limited spots available.
For more information and to apply
https://tinyurl.com/changeup-artsorg

I looked up Nanotopia and found it on SoundCloud. Happy listening!

Et Al III (the ultimate science bar night in Vancouver) and more

A September 12, 2018 Curiosity Collider announcement (received via email) reveals details about the latest cooperative event/bar night put on by three sciencish groups,

Curiosity Collider is bringing art + science to Vancouver’s Ultimate Bar Science Night with Nerd Nite & Science Slam

Do you enjoy learning about science in a casual environment? This is the third year that Curiosity Collider is part of Et al, the Ultimate Bar Science Night where we bring together awesome speakers and activities. Come and enjoy Curiosity Collider’s segment on quantum physics with Spoken Word Poet Angelica Poversky, Physicist James Day, and CC’s own Creative Director Char Hoyt.

When: Drinks and mingling start at 6:30pm. Presentations start at 7:30pm.
Where: Rio Theatre, 1660 E Broadway, Vancouver, BC V5N 1W1
Cost: $15-20 via Eventbrite and at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future science bar events.

Special Guest talk by Dr. Carin Bondar – Biologist with a Twist!

Dr. Carin Bondar is a biologist, author and philosopher. Bondar is author of the books Wild Sex and Wild Moms (Pegasus). She is the writer and host of an online series based on her books which have garnered over 100,000,000 views. Her TED talk on the subject has nearly 3 million views. She is host of several TV series including Worlds Oddest Animal Couples (Animal Planet, Netflix), Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World (Discovery World HD, National Geographic) and Outrageous Acts of Science (The Science Channel). Bondar is an adventurer and explorer, having discovered 11 new species of beetles and snails in the remote jungles of Borneo. Bondar is also a mom of 4 kids, two boys and two girls.

Follow updates on twitter via @ccollider or #ColliderCafe. This event is part of the Science Literacy Week celebration across Canada.

Head to the Facebook event page – let us know you are coming and share this event with others!

Looking for more Art+Science in Vancouver?
For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar.

Devoted readers 🙂 will note that the Vancouver Biennale’s Curious Imaginings show was featured here in a June 18, 2018 post and mentioned more recently in the context of a September 11, 2018 post on xenotransplantation.

Finally for this section, special mention to whomever wrote up the ‘bar night’ description on Eventbrite,

Et Al III: The Ultimate Bar Science Night Curiosity Collider + Nerd Nite Vancouver + Science Slam Canada

POSTER BY: Armin Mortazavi IG:@Armin.Scientoonist

Et Al III: The Ultimate Bar Science Night

Curiosity Collider + Nerd Nite Vancouver + Science Slam Canada

Special Guest talk by Dr. Carin Bondar – Biologist with a Twist!

6:30pm – Doors open
6:30-7:30 Drinks, Socializing, Nerding
7:30pm-945pm Stage Show with two intermissions

You like science? You like drinking while sciencing? In Vancouver there are many options to get educated and inspired through science, art, and culture in a casual bar setting outside of universities. There’s Nerd Nite which focuses on nerdy lectures in the Fox Cabaret, Curiosity Collider which creates events that bring together artists and scientists, and Science Slam, a poetry-slam inspired science communication competition!

In this third installment of Et Al, we’re making the show bigger than ever. We want people to know all about the bar science nights in Vancouver, but we also want to connect all you nerds together as we build this community. We encourage you to COME DRESSED AS YOUR FAVOURITE SCIENTIST. We will give away prizes to the best costumes, plus it’s a great ice breaker. We’re also encouraging science based organizations to get involved in the show by promoting your institution. Contact Kaylee or Michael at vancouver@nerdnite.com if your science organization would like to contribute to the show with some giveaways, you will get a free ticket, if you don’t have anything to give away, contact us anyway, we want this to be a celebration of science nights in Vancouver!

BIOS

CARIN BONDAR
Dr. Carin Bondar is a biologist, author and philosopher. Bondar is author of the books Wild Sex and Wild Moms (Pegasus). She is writer and host of online series based on her books (Wild Sex and Wild Moms) which have garnered over 100,000,000 views. Her TED talk on the subject has nearly 3 million views. She is host of several TV series including Worlds Oddest Animal Couples (Animal Planet, Netflix), Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World (Discovery World HD, National Geographic) and Outrageous Acts of Science (The Science Channel). Bondar is an adventurer and explorer, having discovered 11 new species of beetles and snails in the remote jungles of Borneo. Bondar is also a mom of 4 kids, two boys and two girls.

Curiosity Collider Art Science Foundation promotes interdisciplinary collaborations that capture natural human curiosity. At the intersection of art, culture, technology, and humanity are innovative ways to communicate the daily relevance of science. Though exhibitions, performance events and our quarterly speaker event, the Collider Cafe we help create new ways to experience science.

NERD NITE
In our opinion, there has never been a better time to be a Nerd! Nerd Nite is an event which is currently held in over 60 cities worldwide! The formula for each Nerd Nite is pretty standard – 20 minute presentations from three presenters each night, in a laid-back environment with lots to learn, and lots to drink!

SCIENCE SLAM
Science Slam YVR is a community outreach organization committed to supporting and promoting science communication in Vancouver. Our Science Slams are informal competitions that bring together researchers, students, educators, and communicators to share interesting science in creative ways. Every event is different, with talks, poems, songs, dances, and unexpected surprises. Our only two rules? Each slammer has 5 minutes, and no slideshows are allowed! Slammers come to share their science, and the judges and audience decide their fate. Who will take away the title of Science Slam champion?

That’s a pretty lively description. You can get tickets here.

Calgary’s Beakerhead

An art, science, and engineering festival in Calgary, Alberta, Beakerhead opens on September 19, 2018 and runs until September 23, 2018. Here’s more from the 2018 online programme announcement made in late July (?) 2018,

Giant Dung Beetle, Zorb Ball Racers, Heart Powered Art and More Set to Explode on Calgary Streets!

Quirky, fun adventures result when art, science and engineering collide at Beakerhead September 19 – 23, 2018.

In just seven weeks, enormous electric bolts will light up the sky in downtown Calgary when a crazy cacophony of exhibits and events takes over the city. The Beakerhead crew is announcing the official program lineup with tickets now available online for all ticketed events. This year’s extravaganza will include remarkable spectacles of art and science, unique activities, and more than 50 distinct events – many of which are free, but still require registration to get tickets.

The Calgary-born smash up of art, science and engineering is in its sixth year. Last year, more than 145,000 people participated in Beakerhead and organizers are planning to top that number in 2018.

“Expect conversations that start with “wow!” says Mary Anne Moser, President and Co-founder of Beakerhead. “This year’s lineup includes a lot of original concepts, special culinary events, dozens of workshops, shows and and tours.”

Beakerhead events take place indoors and out. Beakernight is science’s biggest ticketed street party and tickets are now on sale.

Highlights of Beakerhead 2018:

  • Light up the Night: Giant electric bolts will light up the night sky thanks to two 10-metre Tesla Coils built by a team of artists and engineers.
  • Lunch Without Light: This special Dark Table dining experience is led by a famous broadcaster and an esteemed neuroscientist.
  • Beakereats and Beakerbar: Dining is a whole new experience when chef and bartender become scientist! Creative Calgary chefs and mixologists experiment with a new theme in 2018: canola.
  • Four to Six on Fourth: Blocks of open-air experimentation including a human-sized hamster wheel, artists, performers, and hands-on or feet-on experiences like walking on liquid.
  • Beacons: This series of free neighbourhood installations is completely wild! There’s everything from a giant dung beetle to a 3.5 metre lotus that lights up with your heart beat.
  • Workshops: Learn the art of animation, understand cryptocurrency, meet famous scientists and broadcasters, make organic facial oil or a vegan carrot cake and much more.
  • Zorbathon: Get inside a zorb and cavort with family and friends in an oversized playground. Participate in rolling races, bump-a-thons, obstacle courses. Make a day of it.

Beakerhead takes place September 19 – 23, 2018 with the ticketed Beakernight on Saturday, September 22 at Fort Calgary.

Here’s a special shout out to Shaskatchewan`s Jean-Sébastien Gauthier and Brian F. Eames (featured here in a February 16, 2018 posting) and their free ‘Within Measure’ Sept. 19 – 23, 2018 event at Beakerhead.

That’s all folks! For now, that is.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)