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Why Lance Armstrong’s Doping Doesn’t Matter

January 19, 2013 3 comments

lance armstrongManny Ramirez. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Baseball is no stranger to superstars using steroids. Sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified from an Olympic victory decades ago. More likely than not, every sport has players who use ‘performance enhancing drugs’ – it’s just that the player’s performance is not generally enhanced to superstar status. Now Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping, and once again the world is shocked.

For me, the most unfortunate part of this whole story is that Armstrong lied to so many people for so long about doping. He sued people who ‘lied’ about his doping. He put out press statement after press statement about how he was a clean athlete. He threatened teammates and others. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me, really. I have the same sort of scorn for politicians who blather on about family values and the sanctity of marriage after cheating on their spouse with a gay prostitute the night before. It’s not the sex that bothers me, it’s the lying.

For the moment, let’s put that aside. Armstrong broke the rules. Somewhere in the professional cycling handbook there’s a ‘no doping’ clause, just as there is in most other sports handbooks. As The Verge points out, doping can mean anything from manipulating blood through transfusions and hormones to taking performance enhancing drugs. My contention is this: A ‘no doping’ clause is a terrible rule. Not just because it’s easily circumvented by creating new drugs that aren’t on the official ‘banned’ list, and not just because it encourages athletes who want to cheat to find clever ways to evade the tests. It’s not even terrible because the extent of doping’s impact isn’t very clear. Does anyone really question whether McGwire, Bonds, Johnson, or Armstrong were excellent athletes who would have had great success even if they hadn’t been doping? It’s quite likely that all these athletes would have been very good – perhaps even great – but doping made them better. Maybe just slightly, but it was enough. The rule is stupid, because ‘just slightly’ is about to become greatly.

China National Anti-Doping Centre Opens For 2008 Beijing Olympics

Whenever I make this contention, people inevitably come back with something along the lines of a fairness argument. It’s not fair to allow doping because these dopers are cheating. They have an unfair advantage. It’s not natural, etc. Yes, dopers are cheaters. If no one was doping, there would be no cheaters. This is clearly the goal of the expensive and invasive testing processes designed to detect dopers and the suspensions and revocations of awards after dopers are caught. It’s a system designed to detect and then punish, with the goal of scaring would-be dopers straight and eliminating cheaters. You know what else eliminates cheaters without the expense, invasive tests, and asterisks next to awards or revocation of medals? Allowing doping. If it’s not against the rules, then there are no cheaters. Instead of all the extraordinary measures taken to combat doping, sports authorities could get rid of cheaters entirely (of the doping variety, anyway) by deleting a couple of paragraphs.

Allowing doping largely takes care of the unfair advantage argument as well. If it’s neither secretive nor banned, then anyone who wants to enhance their performance is free to do so. It might be an advantage, but it’s no longer unfair. But I suspect that people who use the unfair advantage argument generally mean the third thing: That it’s not natural. This, I think, is the worst argument of all.

Can we just get rid of the idea that because something is ‘natural’ that it’s better? That argument is already a fallacy for cripes sake. But it’s not just that the argument is technically wrong – it’s just plain stupid. If an athlete gets sick, we don’t get bent out of shape about them taking antibiotics or Nyquil. Hell, we don’t even get mad if they’re taking steroids as part of a recovery process. Humankind’s distinguishing characteristic is arguably our ability to use tools to improve our condition. We nearly all use drugs when we’re sick. Many of us will huff steroids to get rid of a simple allergy. Is it really that unbelievable that an athlete being paid millions of dollars to do well wants to use a tool to help them become better? Why do we all of a sudden get bent out of shape about their using an unnatural substance to run better when we were fine with that athlete using the same substance to recover from a torn ACL a year prior?

It comes back to the unfair advantage argument. These athletes aren’t ‘pure humans’ or something like this, and so by taking a substance to get better it’s ruining the core of the sport. Consider this argument in two different lights.

Super Bowl XLVIThe first light is something like: This athlete wouldn’t naturally be this good, so it harms the sport to allow her to take a performance enhancing substance to get better. Let’s take American football as an example. Ryan Fitzpatrick (starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills) is not as good as Tom Brady (starting quarterback of the New England Patriots). As far as I know, neither of these athletes are illegal dopers, though I suspect they probably use legal substances to get rid of the aches and pains of, say, getting sacked by Brian Urlacher. As far as I know, both QBs put in a ton of work, are smart guys, and are dedicated to their jobs. That is, it isn’t the case that Tom Brady is more motivated than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Certainly the surrounding team helps Tom look better than Ryan, but if we stripped that away and just looked at their statistics in running, passing accuracy and passing distance, I think we’d find that Tom is perhaps a little quicker, a little more accurate, and has a little more arm than Ryan.

Tom, it seems, has slightly better genes than Ryan; at least for the purposes of throwing a football while avoiding large guys trying to tackle him. They’ve both worked hard, put in the effort, but Tom just has a higher capability ceiling than Ryan. It’s how he was born, and that’s fine because it’s natural. But is it really? Isn’t this really the ultimate unfair advantage? There’s nothing about Tom’s greater ability that ‘ruins the game of football’ like we might argue were the case if we found out he’d been doping. In fact, if Ryan started doping and became as good as Tom and then got caught, we’d probably say that it was Ryan who was ruining the game of football by doping, even though he only improved to the same level as Tom. Tom, through random chance, is better at football than Ryan, but Ryan is the bad guy if he uses a tool to get to the same level as Tom. What kind of sense does that make?

The second light to the natural-is-better statement has already been hinted at. Tom Brady, being a great quarterback, doesn’t ruin the game of football. Michael Phelps didn’t ruin swimming because he was perhaps the best swimmer who ever existed. Naturally great athletes don’t ruin their sport, no matter how good they are. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong didn’t ruin their sports by being great either. When we were unaware of the fact they were doping, they provided a spark to their sport like we hadn’t seen before. These folks were legends because they were good, and arguably revitalized their sport. I’d even argue that most people wouldn’t even care about cycling (to the extent that anyone cares about cycling, anyway) if it weren’t for this Lance Armstrong guy who won a ton of titles. A quarterback who comes in and is better than Tom also isn’t going to ruin the game of football. Great athletes make for great sports, and doping is arguably a way to make great athletes better. Great athletes are the reason we watch the NFL instead of high school football games.

That is exactly why we ought to allow doping. If it’s legal, if it’s not an unfair advantage, and if we get rid of this silly and fallacious notion that natural is better we will have better athletes. Maybe the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and professional cycling don’t want to allow dopers into their leagues. That’s fine. Create a new league where it’s legal.

geneticengineeringWe are approaching a time where steroid doping is going to look like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning – maybe it provides some advantage, but it’s miniscule. The Daily Mail ran a story a few months ago about amazing Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and the (extremely unlikely, imo) possibility that she was genetically enhanced. Past that claim, they did a pretty good job of explaining what genetic enhancement could look like. Athletes whose blood carried more oxygen, who are stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Athletes with quicker reflexes and more durable ligaments and bones.  In short, professional athletes doing what they do, but better.

Outside of sports, some people are talking about modifying soldiers to give them superior capabilities. A decade ago, DARPA was looking into the possibility of modifying soldiers “to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning.” DARPA’s “Metabolic Dominance” program was covered by Wired nine years ago – and consider that we were allowed to know about that program. Generally, human enhancement is catching on and becoming more acceptable:

For its part, the National Intelligence Council expects some resistance to biomods. “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable,” the Council advised. Americans, especially, tend to have deep reservations about changing people’s biology, [Georgetown researcher Andrew] Herr points out. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it. He points out increasing acceptance of cognitive-enhancing drugs among American college students. “Seventy to 80 percent of upperclassman have at least once taken these drugs illegally to get better grades,” he says. “If the younger generation in our country is more comfortable with this, then that would make the use of these kinds of things in society, and by extension the military, very different.” – Wired

Soon, doping isn’t going to mean taking a shot of steroids or getting a blood transfusion, but rewriting our DNA and making it more efficient. As soon as it’s feasible a military, somewhere, is going to embrace it. If genetic modification is acceptable for our military, then it will become acceptable elsewhere too. For instance, what happens the first time a soldier leaves the service and, say, wants to play football again like they did in college? Will the NFL let him in?

If the NFL does let this player in, they’re likely to be much better than other players – that is, after all, the point of the modification. And this athlete will be better in a way that the current doping scandals don’t even begin to approach. It might be like dropping Tom Brady into a high school football match.

That brings us to the second point. If the NFL refuses to allow the player, then surely someone will start another league. This league will be better (more exciting, faster, etc.) than the NFL to the same extent as the NFL is better than high school games. There will be no cheating as far as modifications go because modification will be specifically allowed. The advantage won’t be unfair, and there won’t be some suggestion that the athletes ought to be natural in the sense we mean now.

In less than a decade, someone will take Lance Armstrong’s place. There will be another great cyclist, because sports never stop just because one athlete got busted. Maybe this athlete will be a ‘natural’ and surpass Lance’s abilities because the athlete was lucky enough to have excellent genes. Maybe the athlete will be modified to an extent Lance never imagined. Either way, the sport will go on. Before long, enhanced athletes will become the norm, even if we still have quaint throwback leagues for unenhanced humans. Modification and doping makes sports better, and that is why Lance Armstrong’s doping doesn’t matter.

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Categories: ethics, genetics, transhumanism

GMOs: The Future Of Food

January 6, 2013 5 comments

pharmcornFor several months now, I’ve wanted to put together a post talking about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and particularly in the context of food. I’ve had several debates with my friends – I tend toward the pro-GMO camp and several of my friends are anti-GMO. I maintained that if they simply looked at the science, reviewed the research, and avoided sources with an agenda that often post incorrect information that they would come around to my way of thinking.

It turns out, someone else just did that job for me.

Big-time environmental advocate Mark Lynas has fought GMOs for nearly two decades. He helped to coin the “Franken-whatever” phrase, and has generally contributed to public hysteria and governmental regulation of GMOs, particularly across Europe. On Thursday, at the Oxford Farmer’s Conference, Lynas recanted. Anyone interested in GMOs should watch the entirety of his speech, but I’ll highlight a few important bits after the video.

“[W]hat happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”

This follows my general argument that when people look at the hard data, they understand that most fears about GMOs are unfounded. That someone so ardently opposed to GMOs could revise his opinion, publically no less, is extremely rare and worthy of praise.

“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

Often, when I ask why people dislike GMOs, their reaction comes down to a dislike of Monsanto. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto either, though I find they’re sometimes demonized more than they ought to be. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case about some of their practices during the upcoming term.

But creating hysteria about GMOs because one of the major companies that makes them is distasteful is like creating a hysteria about computers because one doesn’t like Microsoft. The technology is separate from the people that implement it. If someone wants to argue that the business model of Monsanto is unethical or harmful that’s an argument I can get behind (or at least entertain.) But to suggest that the technology itself is bad, even if Monsanto is a sort of corporate demon, is ludicrous.

How Some View Monsanto

How Some View Monsanto

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs. I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened. I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Lynas moved away from the propaganda, did some research, and came to conclusions backed by evidence instead of fear.

Lynas goes on at some length about how GMOs can help mitigate climate change, help feed billions of people, and generally make life a little better for all of us (and a lot better for some of us.)

“There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”

Ironic is exactly the right word to use here. The trouble with GMOs is that it can be a dangerous technology. Part of me hopes that so many of these regulations will be loosened and GMO technology can become essentially open source. So much of my distaste for Monsanto comes down to the patent system and approval process. But because there are strong dissenters to the technology who require stringent regulations the R&D and approval processes are very costly. That means that only large corporations can afford to research the technology. And that, in turn, means that Monsanto remains the biggest game in town because smaller, perhaps more ethical, businesses can’t afford to play.

“In the EU the system is at a standstill, and many GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic politics of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria. Around the whole world the regulatory delay has increased to more than 5 and a half years now, from 3.7 years back in 2002. The bureaucratic burden is getting worse.”

Take, for example, a GMO salmon that, after 17 years in the approval process and millions upon millions of dollars spent to get it approved, has finally been approved after the FDA conceded that it “posed no major health or environmental risks” and that “ [the FDA] could not find any valid scientific reasons to ban the production of GM Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species.”

gm-salmon

Lynas says, “If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you. For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”

Indeed we do.

Just a few examples of the potential benefits of GMO technology (in food alone – I will post a separate article about GMOs in other contexts another time):

Lab grown meat that could provide nutrition to millions of people, without the detrimental impact to the Earth caused by traditional cattle and chicken farms and without the ethical problems of killing animals for food.

Modified tomatoes that can help prevent heart disease.

Modified corn that could help treat a rare disease.

Lynas speaks about several other current uses of GMO food to help feed people or cure disease, and again, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you listen to the entire speech. GMO food, time and again, has proven safe, effective, and offers benefits far beyond what traditional farming techniques offer. The best part: We’re just getting started.

As an aside: There is a separate debate about whether GM food ought to be labeled. For the record, I think that it should. People certainly have a right to know what sort of food they’re purchasing and consuming. Perhaps equally importantly, people ought to be able to see how many of the foods they already eat are genetically modified. This, I think, will dissipate some of the fear about GM food. It would, as a side benefit, allow me to knowingly support foods that are genetically modified.

More Medical Breakthroughs

Hi again, everyone. Sorry for the (very) extended absence. I should have posts out more regularly now; I am aiming for every other week or so. I will pick right back up where I left off, talking about medical advancements because a lot of exciting news has come out in the last few months. Specifically, I want to talk about three broad categories: Synthetic or engineered medical research or treatments, biological (DNA) research and procedures, and various transplants that have been performed or are being researched.

Synthetic Medical Advances:

A lot of research recently has been targeted at creating synthetic life. These are not robotic solutions (so, for these purposes at least, synthetic does not mean artificial intelligence or cyborgs) but instead largely biological entities that have been tinkered with.

For example, Kurzweilai.net reports that chemists have created cells with self-assembling, artificial membranes. Because creating truly artificial life will require both an artificial membrane and an artificial genome (which has also been created) this is an important step towards creating entirely new organisms. The best part: it seems to be easy and cheap to create these new artificial membranes, so we should see a lot of movement in this area in the near future.

Once we have entirely synthetic cells, how could we make more? No problem: Scientists have created artificial DNA. i09 reports that scientists have created XNA; a polymer much like DNA or RNA that can evolve and reproduce. The article notes that artificial DNA has been around for a decade or so, but what makes this new discovery special is that it can pass along its information and evolve in a very life-like manner. “Using a crafty genetic engineering technique called compartmentalized self-tagging (or “CST”), Pinheiro’s team designed special polymerases that could not only synthesize XNA from a DNA template, but actually copy XNA back into DNA. The result was a genetic system that allowed for the replication and propagation of genetic information.”

Discover Magazine, reporting on the same breakthrough, also focused on the implications of synthetic DNA for our understanding of life: “’They are very interesting with respect to the origin of life,’ says Jack Szostak, a Harvard biologist who studies life’s beginnings and was not involved in the study. ‘In principle, many different polymers could serve the roles of RNA and DNA in living organisms.  Why then does modern biology use only RNA and DNA?’” Both articles mention the benefits of XNA: It is more robust than DNA, is less prone to environmental dangers, and they could be more effective than DNA in targeting different proteins for medical diagnostics.

With synthetic XNA and synthetic cells, what is the next step? An H+ article by Dr. Bratton and Dr. Shackleford suggests that full on synthetic life is likely. In the article, the doctors detail much of the work that has been going on for the last forty years in creating synthetic life and write that in the near future “[s]pecific applications include the creation of synthetic organisms that can: 1) efficiently produce pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are otherwise difficult and expensive to produce, 2) efficiently produce hydrocarbon biofuels (replacing oil, coal, etc.), and 3) be useful as plant feedstock in agriculture, lowering the need for increasingly expensive petroleum-based fertilizers.”

Finally, IEET posted a video from George Church, Pioneer in Synthetic Biology from Harvard and MIT, who argues that syntheticDNA could have numerous benefits, including bringing back extinct species. Additionally, synthetic biology could “prevent ecosystems from losing diversity” or create new species to make ecosystems more diverse than they ever have been.

Biological Research and Procedures:

ScienceDaily reports that scientists have discovered that printing cells onto slides using an inkjet printer disrupts the membranes of the cells enough that they can put molecules into the cells that otherwise would not fit. This allows scientists to alter biological cells more easily, and in greater numbers.

Speaking of cell printing, Discover Magazine recently ran an article about a creepy looking, but still awesome, blood vessel printing machine. The machine literally weaves “threads of human tissue” into blood vessels and can potentially be used to replace the blood vessels of dialysis patients or others whose vessels are not working as they should.

There has been a lot of interesting movement in cancer research recently too. Kurzweilai.net reports that scientists from the University of Arizona have made progress in diagnosing breast cancer; one of the “leading worldwide health concern[s.]” By scanning cells in 3D, scientists are better able to see the defects that indicate cancerous cells.

Another article from ScienceDaily, however, suggests that improved detection for cancer might be a moot discovery. Scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an antibody to kill a broad range of cancer cells including breast, ovarian, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate cancers. The process seems to work by blocking a protein flag on cancer cells that usually shield it from an immune response. Once that protein is blocked, the immune system kicks in and annihilates the cancer; no matter what stage it is in. By breaking the stealth protein of cancer cells, the immune system regains its efficiency and destroys the cancer. Although it is much too early to call, this is at least a very promising step on the road to a cure.

Transplant Procedures:

Last, but not least, some exciting transplant procedures have been performed.

Both the BBC and (the hilariously named) boingboing.net have reported that the world’s first jaw transplant procedure was successfully performed on an 83 year old woman when her badly infected jaw was replaced with a titanium / bioceramic replica. The jaw was constructed using 3-D printers (another emerging technology) and, though the artificial jaw was about 30% heavier than a biological jaw, the “patient can easily get used to it.” Within a day, she was talking and swallowing. The jaw, once designed, took only a “few hours” to print, suggesting that widespread 3-D printing technology in hospitals could provide a quick way to replace many bone structures in the body (never mind organ printing that is still in its infancy.) The surgery itself also was much quicker than a traditional transplant; it took only four hours.

The BBC also reported on ever improving efforts to grow patients new limbs from their own cells. As the article states, there are essentially four complexities of tissue building, and three of them have been successfully implemented in humans. [Dr. Anthony Atalia] breaks tissue building into four levels of complexity.

  • Flat structures, such as the skin, are the simplest to engineer as they are generally made up of just the one type of cell.
  • Tubes, such as blood vessels and urethras, which have two types of cells and act as a conduit.
  • Hollow non-tubular organs like the bladder and the stomach, which have more complex structures and functions.
  • Solid organs, such as the kidney, heart and liver, are the most complex to engineer. They are exponentially more complex, have many different cell types, and more challenges in the blood supply.

Dr. Atalia argues that we will not likely see a hand grown in his lifetime, but I am not so sure. The doctor is only a little older than fifty, and I would not be surprised to see the kind of improvement needed to print a hand occur within the next fifty years.

Image courtesy of Cytograft

Boydfuturist Wednesday: Improving Biology

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Stem cells aside, it’s been a little while since I’ve talked about genetic and otherwise biological technologies coming down the pike. Although I think that robotic and synthetic technology will largely overcome any progress biological technologies can offer, we are further along in the biological sciences and so will likely see those advances first. Some people, seeking to “stay human” or something similar will likely stop with biological enhancement whatever advancements synthetic technologies can provide. Here are some of the cooler new stories of the last few weeks broken down into three categories: currently available cures and treatments for diseases, speculative cures and treatments for diseases, and general upgrades to the human condition.

What’s Currently Available:

First, victims of heart attacks involved in a clinical trial at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute were given  an “infusion of their own heart-derived cells”, which helped “their damaged hearts regrow healthy muscle”. In short, by using a stem cell treatment, their hearts “demonstrated a significant reduction in the size of the scar left on the heart muscle by a heart attack” by 50% one year later. Importantly, this reduction in the size of scar tissue was not the result of a more efficient procedure, but instead a result of a procedure that can be applied after traditional surgeries for heart attack patients. This means that doctors ought to begin performing the treatment, if it passes further trials, right away.

A lot of people like to accuse scientists who use or invent high technology of “playing God”. In this case, maybe they’re right. Jean Bennett and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania recently published an article in the February issue of Science Translational Medicine documenting their procedure that restored sight to the blind in one eye in 6 of 12 cases! A follow-up treatment produced improvement in as little as two weeks in the other eye for three out of three women from the initial group of 6 that showed improvement. The second treatment also seemed to make the first more effective.  Not too shabby for sub-deities.

Finally, last month doctors in Turkey performed the world’s first triple limb transplant (and the donor’s face is going to a different person.)  Although triple-limb transplants are rare now, it seems to confirm both that we have the knowledge and technology available to perform such an invasive surgery and that the human body itself can withstand the surgery. This is promising, and suggests that people who later choose to get a limb, or two, or three replaced with biological replacement (or cybernetic prostheses) in the future will be able to withstand the surgery, even in the unlikely event that surgical procedures and technologies don’t improve significantly in the coming years.

Speculative Cures And Treatments:

Scientists from the University of Texas, Austin recently published the results of their experiment to reattach severed nerves in the Journal of Neuroscience Research. The new procedure allows doctors to repair severed nerves “within minutes.” Once the severed nerves are repaired, the behavior they control can be partially restored within days, and fully restored within weeks. According to Professor George Bittner, current procedures “imperfectly restore lost function within months at best.” Although this procedure still needs to undergo clinical trials, if successful it suggests that patients replacing limbs in the future might be able to recover from the surgery much, much more quickly.

Scientists are also making headway in the fight against cancer by reevaluating the medicinal properties of a plant; thapsia garganica. Although the plant has been used before to treat rheumatism (a group of medical problems affecting joints and connective tissues) the side effects were apparently quite bad. However, by breaking the toxic plant down to the molecular level, biotech firm Genspera has been able to direct the plant to cancer cells. Once the plant meets the cancer cells, it seems to be very effective at killing the tumor and, crucially, nothing else. One of the major problems with current cancer treatments is that they poison the entire body, killing good and bad cells alike. This could be one of the first of new, targeted medications that kill just those cells causing problems and leaving the rest of the body unaffected. The new drug is working its way through clinical trials now, and the company hopes to modify it to destroy other types of cancer as well.

In some of the biggest news of the day, however, scientists in both the UK and Australia hope to use genetic engineering techniques to combat a rare (roughly 1 in 5,000), but serious, neurodegenerative disease and muscular dystrophy in children. The diseases are caused when the mitochondria in cells are faulty. By introducing mitochondria from a third party into a fertilized egg the faulty mitochondrial DNA is replaced with healthy mitochondrial DNA and the disease is potentially cured. Along the way, however, something important happens: A human egg, which thus far has consisted of a mix of two sets of DNA (one from each parent), gains a third set of DNA (from the donor). Already scientists have performed this procedure with monkeys, but to research this potential cure in the UK, the legislature is going to have to reconsider its laws banning genetic therapy on fertilized human eggs. This, of course, has profound implications for other sorts of genetic engineering in humans, both born and unborn.

Finally, researchers at UC-Davis are working on a new stem cell treatment to help reinvigorate bones in people suffering from osteoporosis. Although the study doesn’t suggest that this process can be used to increase bone strength to superhuman levels, the research doesn’t seem to be limited to osteoporosis; the researchers hope to expand this to bone fractures, bone infections, and cancer treatments.

General Upgrades To The Human Condition:

Some more highly experimental technology is on the way. Scientists have been experimenting with mixing human skin and spider silk (which, itself, was engineered into goat’s milk.) Why mix spider silk and human skin? Spider silk is much stronger than Kevlar, which is used to make bulletproof vests. This means that by replacing some proteins in human skin, humans could have essentially bulletproof skin (which would be resistant to other impacts as well, of course.)

Also, George Dvorsky recently blogged about a Chinese boy who apparently has mutated eyes that have granted him night vision and glowing eyes like a cat. Assuming the story is true, this is apparently a natural mutation. If a mutation can occur naturally, it can also be induced. If it can be induced, that means with just a little genetic engineering, we all can have night vision eyes. And that, I have to say, is pretty cool.

Why Bad Arguments Suck

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Nothing puts the rapid pace of technological change in perspective like seeing the ridiculous pile of links that I want to talk about stored in my draft email. No matter how much I write, it seems, there is always so much more to say. Often, I want to write about things that will help me share as many links as possible in a post, but writing that way either forces me to take a pass on weighty topics that require saying a little more, create a post that covers a hodgepodge of topics, or simply resign myself to sharing just a link or two so that I can say everything that needs to be said. Today is going to be one of those latter types of posts because I want to talk about intellectual honesty for a minute.

Let’s start with an article from Rebecca Taylor at Lifenews.com. Lifenews seems to focus on pro-life issues which, given my views about technology, probably doesn’t seem like the first blog I’d read. But I do like to see what the people who think differently than I do are saying, and so whenever lifenews pops up on my ‘transhumanism’ Google feed I head over to see what’s going on. In this case, Dr. Taylor is arguing that transhumanism, coupled with Roe v. Wade, is leading to a dystopia of eugenics and genetic engineering. In this, I think, Dr. Taylor is potentially half right. Unfortunately, Dr. Taylor either doesn’t understand the law she cites, or else is deliberately misrepresenting it to make a rhetorical point. For instance, she briefly mentions Roe v. Wade and then asserts that the case lead to the unborn having “no legal protection.” Because the unborn have no legal protection, she argues, immoral scientists can do what they want with them.

The first problem with Dr. Taylor’s argument is that it’s just wrong legally. First, Roe v. Wade hardly stripped all legal protection for the unborn; fetuses continued to be protected after the first trimester, and abortion could still be outlawed in the third trimester. Assuming Roe had stripped those protections, however, they would have been replaced in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the more recent abortion case that doesn’t pack the same rhetorical appeal. There, the Supreme Court decided that states could ban abortion past the point of viability, and institute processes that women must go through to undergo an abortion even prior to viability so long as the processes are not “unduly burdensome.” Outside of the abortion context, the unborn continue to enjoy widespread protection in criminal and tort contexts.

Dr. Taylor goes on argue that Roe lead to an “unregulated” market for fertility treatments; a term she equates with cloning and genetic enhancement. But a quick glance at US law shows that this simply isn’t so. Aside from state laws that regulate cloning, the FDA and other administrative agencies regulate many of the processes involved with human cloning and the FDA has publically stated that they will not allow research projects involving human cloning.

Putting aside the legal problems with Dr. Taylor’s argument, she goes on to list a parade of horribles stemming from this supposed lack of legal protection. But that argument, too, is based on a lot of outdated science. Mainly she seems concerned that researchers are using fetal stem cells, though she strongly implies that fetuses are aborted to supply these cells, instead of recognizing that stem cells from fetuses already aborted for other reasons are then used for medical research. Dr. Taylor seems to overlook the fact that we often use cadavers for medical research, or else distinguishes using parts of aborted fetuses from using parts of cadavers without explanation. Either way, using parts of our dead to help the living is a well-established and generally uncontroversial matter; our entire organ transplant system is based around just that idea.

Finally, Dr. Taylor spins into a diatribe about transhumanists, though she doesn’t really say much about why transhumanism is bad except that people might (gasp!) lop off their own limb to replace it with something better and that the divide between the haves and the have nots might widen (an issues, it’s worth mentioning, that transhumanists themselves are concerned about.)

It’s easy to argue against transhumanism when you’re misquoting law, using outdated science, and not bothering to connect ideas with logic. Indeed, many of the experts Dr. Taylor cites to say that the policies she’s decrying are the natural extension of current scientific and ethical policies.

I want to be clear about why I’m calling out this article. It’s not that I dislike Dr. Taylor, or disagree with everything she says even, but I abhor bad arguments. I don’t expect blog posts to look like academic articles (I’d be in trouble if that was the case) but I don’t think accurate is too high a bar to expect. It’s not just that articles like Dr. Taylor’s are wrong, it’s that they’re wrong and likely to influence public opinion with bad facts. And that, at the heart of it, is the problem. It’s also why, should I misrepresent something, I want people to correct me. We can have debates about human cloning, genetic engineering, and the divide between the haves and the have nots without resorting to bad law and bad facts. The ethical issues surrounding transhumanism are difficult enough to debate without also having to defuse straw man arguments. To make real progress in these ethical debates we have to remain intellectually honest.

An excellent example of a well written article exploring a transhumanist ethical problem is this article by Carolyn Abraham at The Globe and Mail. While I highly recommend reading the whole article for a serious debate about the merits of human cloning and genetic engineering, what I want to point out here is that the article is accurate, balanced, and presents both sides of the argument. I really look forward to well-reasoned arguments from people not as optimistic about technology as I am because I realize the world isn’t so black and white that this technology is obviously great or terrible. Reasonable minds could disagree with the conclusion (not made by the article) that the technology is good or bad, but they would be disagreeing based on accurate information. That’s the sort of debate we need, and the only thing that will help us come to any sort of conclusion about how to proceed in the future.

Image Source: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/stemcell/overview.php

The new and the new-old: Computers and Woolly Mammoths

January 16, 2012 1 comment

Today on boydfuturist: Advances in computing (and one genetic bombshell.)

I’ll begin with some technical advances in computing during the last week or so. First, Kurzweilai.net links to an article reporting that computer component maker NEC has demonstrated 1.15Tb/s optical transmission speeds over 10,000km (or about 6,200mi). Although it’s probably too soon to hope for internet upgrades for consumers (and might be for the foreseeable future, given the United States’ abysmal internet infrastructure) I can at least dream of upgrading my 300kb/s eventually. This sort of hi-speed internet capability will be vital for the increasing mounds of data that are being sent and received thanks to mobile phones, embedded movies, video conferencing, video gaming, and other hi-bandwidth applications.

To handle the increasing amounts of data, both locally generated and transmitted over the internet, computers are going to need more memory. I suppose I’m dating myself to say that I remember when memory was measured in megabytes, and that 16GB of RAM seems outrageous to me even as I installed it for less than $100 in my buddy’s computer. But we’re going to need more, and it’s going to have to fit in increasingly smaller spaces as we miniaturize computers down to the nano scale. Fortunately, researchers at IBM have stored a byte of memory in a mere 12 atoms, or about 100 times as dense as current materials. Until we can safely and cheaply cool home computers to near absolute zero this won’t be much use at home, but it shows that there is potential to pack a lot of memory into very tiny spaces.

What sort of applications could use such vast amounts of data? Lots, it turns out. Erin Rapacki argues that we ought to begin scanning the “real” world. By scanning every object in the real world in 3-D, we could give computers a vast data set that allows them to recognize virtually any object that they pick up. It turns out that this sort of project is being crowd sourced, with websites being set up for people to upload 3-D scans using their Xbox Kinect to form one enormous database. I have to wonder if increasing reliance on 3-D printers will speed up this process, since any object that we want to print from a 3-D printer needs to be scanned (or built as a file) in 3-D to begin with. Imagine one day being able to download the “Sears Hardware Collection” file and printing whatever tool it is you need at will.

Vinod Khosla argues that computers will take over many of the jobs in the healthcare field, resulting in staggering amounts of data transmitted across the world in the blink of an eye. Whether or not he’s right, there’s no question that healthcare is becoming more automated, scans are taking up more data, and genomics is coming along right behind to fill up whatever empty HDDs are left. It turns out that devices are being created that allow people to control robots with their mind. Given the amount of data the brain creates, no doubt finely tuned devices that will give the same or better performance as natural limbs and organs will need to transmit and/or receive large amounts of information as well. However, even as technology becomes more omnipresent, people are already asking questions about its impact on our biological brains. Just as we start to wonder how technology impacts our biological brain, however, comes news from MIT that they have succeeded in creating a synthetic version of a biological neuron. While we’re hardly ready to build a brain from scratch, this suggests that doing so is not out of the question.

Finally, some non-computing news that is huge. Biologists are now saying that they have the ability to sequence woolly mammoth DNA, replace the relevant bits in an elephant egg, and implant what will be a woolly mammoth into a female elephant. Scientists have said this before, but haven’t had a complete genome to work with because their samples were damaged.  Difficulty: Woolly mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years. Isn’t this how Jurassic Park started and, if so, can it be long before Paris Hilton is walking around with a mini-T-Rex in her purse?

I, for one, certainly hope not.

Weekend Edition: Heathcare News

January 7, 2012 1 comment

It’s been a busy few days in health technology news.

First, CTV (via fight aging!) reports that Canadian researchers have discovered stem cells within the eyes of adults that can be used to help cure age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. Apparently these cells form within the eye during the embryonic stage, and remain dormant (sometimes up to 100 years) in our eyes. By removing the cells and growing them in a culture, scientists can (in theory) restore vision by replacing dysfunctional cells. Further, these stem cells seem to be pluripotent, meaning that the scientists can turn them into other types of cells and thus, to treatments for other diseases. Here’s a quote from the article:

“In culture dishes in the lab, the researchers were able to coax about 10 per cent of the RPE-derived stem cells to grow in the lab. Further prodding caused the cells to differentiate into, or give rise to, a variety of cell types — those that make bone, fat or cartilage.

Temple said her team also generated a progenitor cell that carries some characteristics of one type of nervous system cell, although it was not fully differentiated.

‘But the fact that we could make these cells that were part-way, that were immature, indicates to us that if we keep on manipulating them, going forward in the future, we should be able to find ways to create other types of central nervous system cells,’ she said.

One goal would be to produce neurons, the electrical-signalling cells in the brain and other parts of the central nervous system. That would mark a major step towards the holy grail of regenerative medicine: the ability to repair spinal cord injuries and brain damage caused by such diseases as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

‘And a really important cell type that we’d love to see if we can make would be the retinal cells, the neural retinal cells like the photoreceptors that are in the eye,” said Temple. “So if we could help make new photoreceptors as well as the RPE — which we’ve already shown we can make — then we would be making two really valuable cell types for age-related macular degeneration.'”

Second, USA Today (via Transhumanic) reports that yet another artificial organ, this time the pancreas, has entered clinical trials. Unfortunately, this organ isn’t exactly like the rest of your organs; it’s a small machine worn outside the body rather than being implanted inside the body where the old pancreas used to go. Nevertheless, it’s seemingly effective at monitoring glucose levels in the blood and calculating how much insulin needs to be injected to bring the blood levels back to normal, and then it injects that amount of insulin. Approval for the device is expected in the next three to five years.

Speaking of clinical trials, however, all is not rosy in the world of academic publishing. Discover Magazine reports on a study conducted by scientists showing that 30 months after clinical trials had been completed, better than half had not been published. After more than four years, one-third of the results from clinical trials remained unpublished. This is problematic for two reasons. First, publishing is a condition of receiving a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Thus, better than half of funded groups breach their funding agreement. Second, and perhaps more importantly, by not publishing their results, these scientists deprive the rest of the scientific community of valuable information; information the scientists conducting this study argue could change the conclusions of researchers based on published work.

“’Overall, addition of unpublished FDA trial data caused 46% (19/41) of the summary estimates from the meta-analyses to show lower efficacy of the drug, 7% (3/41) to show identical efficacy, and 46% (19/41) to show greater efficacy.’ That means that when scientists try to study those FDA-approved drugs, they may not realize that they work less well than published papers indicate (or better, as the case may be).”

This is a trend that needs to stop, especially given the exponential increases in technology and the vast amount of advancement coming yearly; up-to-date results are a must.

Going back to diabetes for a moment, a new study reported by eurekalert shows that poor maternal diet can increase the odds of diabetes in the child. Scientists from Cambridge and Leicester have linked poor maternal diet while pregnant to the fetus’ inability to correctly manage fat cells later in life. “Storing fats in the right areas of the body is important because otherwise they can accumulate in places like the liver and muscle where they are more likely to lead to disease.” The pregnant rats in the study were fed low-protein diets, which led to the unborn rats later being unable to process fat correctly and increased their chances of developing type-2 diabetes. This deficiency caused the now-born rats to look slimmer (because they stored less fat) but nevertheless be more likely to develop diabetes. Similar results were shown in humans with low birth weights.

In a world of increasing medical apps and patient-driven medical data, technologyreview.com reports on the the thoughts of cardiologist Eric Topol, who seems to agree with SingularityU chair Daniel Kraft that this increasing data will revolutionize medicine. The article indicates, however, that there is reason to question whether or not all this additional data is really helpful. In no case does the additional information seem to have hurt (that is, patients did not receive worse care for the abundance of information) but neither did the outcome always improve. What the article does not seem to question, however, is that quite soon there will be a deluge of additional patient information available, first through cell phone apps and the federally funded switch to electronic patient records records, and later through more advanced sensors like nanobots swimming around in the bloodstream. For my money, I suggest that if the patient data isn’t helping to increase patient care, then it’s because the data is not being used correctly. Certainly no doctor can keep track of hundreds or thousands of patients whose information is being updated daily or even weekly, but some sort of computer within a hospital with correctly coded software (or perhaps even a Watson-style supercomputer) easily could, and then could alert the doctor to only the most important cases.

Finally, my law school pal Micah linked me to an article from the BBC, reporting on the first chimera-monkey; a monkey created from several different embryos. Essentially, the scientists took DNA from up to six different embryos, mixed them together into three monkey embryos, and out came apparently healthy monkeys Chimero, Hex, and Roku. The study also found that (somewhat unsurprisingly) stem cells didn’t work the same way in mice as they did in primates, which suggests that perhaps all the backward-engineering we’re doing to revert normal cells into a pluripotent stage might not be effective in humans like it is in mice. That is, there still may be a need for embryonic stem cells. Micah asked whether this experiment might have an impact on our notions of family, in addition to our ideas about personhood.

For a couple of reasons, I think this experiment in particular probably won’t. The only thing different about these monkeys and any other monkeys of the same type is that these were artificially created and had a mixture of several strands of DNA. On one hand, that probably means that there is no clear mother or father; when the DNA of six monkeys is mixed together, who’s the biological parent? On the other hand, a monkey (or a human, for that matter) who receives a transplanted organ now has DNA from at least three different people (both biological parents, plus the donor) and maybe four (if you count the two different DNA-strands that make up the donors’ DNA) different sources. With more transplants comes more DNA; it’s not inconceivable that a human could have a kidney from one donor, a lung from another, and a heart from yet a third; making at least five distinct DNA strands within the same human. Also, in the sense that ‘chimera’ just means composed of different DNA strands, then anyone who already has a transplant is a chimera. so for that reason, I don’t think that a human created this way (as unlikely as it is, given human-experimentation laws) would be any less of a person than a more traditionally-created human.

But speaking of created humans, through various fertility treatments, and including even surrogate mothers (or fathers) and whatnot, our notions of family are becoming less tied to the make-up of our DNA. Even simple adoption shows that a family unit can include members with different DNA without trouble. So the fact that these monkeys are made up of several DNA strands probably shouldn’t start affecting out ideas about family, though in humans they could lead to some hilarious Maury Povich episodes. Also, the fact that a human is created through artificial means hasn’t yet stopped them from being a person in the traditional sense, and so I don’t think it would have any effect on monkeys (though they’re not legally persons, and this is unlikely to change that.)

Something that might make us reconsider our notions of personhood and family is a chimera made of different species; part monkey, part reptile combinations, for example. There, a whole new species is being creates and the being becomes further removed from parents. Because family is more of a social construct now than a DNA-matched set (consider how many people seriously consider their dog / cat / goldfish to be part of their family) even this radical form of chimera might not shake our notions of family. But personhood … that’s something I’ll have to think more about.

Stay tuned for some news about robotics tomorrow; I wanted to make separate posts to keep this one from becoming even more unwieldy than it already is.