One Small Step for Clone-kind

A Wall Street Journal article May 16, 2013 reports (including informative an video) on work lead by the Oregon Health and Science University in which human embryonic stem cells have been created from skin cells — which means matching a specific individual DNA.  It is a technology targeted at facilitating organ repair/replacement, but is also one step closer to  human cloning.  Interested parties are quick to point out that there are still major steps to be taken before even primate cloning is viable, that human cloning is illegal in some jurisdictions and unethical in some communities or just plain wrong.

Will we see human clones in the next few decades? My answer is “sure”. First there are cultures and jurisdictions where this would not be unethical or illegal. There are significant kudos to be gained by the successful team (even if they are denied the Nobel prize.) There are ‘fat cats’ (wealthy egotistical folks) who would delight in the possibility of a “mini-me”, or in a compatible organ donor. (Societies with different values are likely to accept some variances along these lines). Some of the ‘fat cats’ will be folks with significant, or total political power sufficient to overcome whatever objections you are sure might exist to the implied above uses-abuses.  Give me, say a dozen clones, some for parts, some to :”raise right” as a successor, and maybe a few to see if brain transplants can work, or other form of memory/personality transfer.

Sounds like bad science fiction? Sure, but these plots did not emerge from alien planets and unlikely science. These are IMHO a logical extrapolation of human nature as revealed over the last few hundred years of science, totalitarianism and ego-mania.   Pretending that we are now that much different than those running the world in 1940, or a few other recent periods of time is a type of denial.

So, I’m taking bets … when will we see the first viable human clone? And a second prize for identifying the correct country in which that breakthrough will occur? I’m betting on “before 2030” and “the country will have a logogram appearing written language”.  What’s your best guess?

Technology and Theme Parks

Ok, so I just got back from a week with the grandkids at Disney/Universal/and Kennedy Space center in the Orlando area.  But, it is a great place to visit to see the social implications of technology in the kinesthetic and sense-driven aspects of entertainment.

First, these parks are often on the leading edge of applying some forms of technology — video projection, sensor based games, animatronics.   With a bit of liberal mix and matching between the theme parks — you can get on a ride that moves in all possible directions for short or long distances (shake, rattle, roll, flip, traverse, etc etc), that presents you with compelling imagery — often involving video projection (onto fog, water), 3-D (glasses) imaging, dioramas with animatronic elements, sound effects, sound tracks, squirts of water, steam, fire, smoke, and now scents — orange orchards, pine trees, skunks, etc. Add a bit of flavoring, and you will be totally enveloped.

There is a tendency for the rides to push the “thrill” factor, how many times can you go upside-down before you share your lunch with others in an un-intended way?  This is an aspect of your capabilities you can fully explore at today’s parks.  Note: while NASA’s Kennedy  Space Center exposes you to some of these considerations, the discussion is medical and technical, not personal and embarrassing.

Some rides or shows engage audience members.  Not just by soliciting volunteers, but by capturing photo images, or training a video camera on folks for live interaction.  It is fun to find your face attached, albeit in a rather hokey way, to various animated images.  But there are some residual privacy issues as well — residual being a key word — how long do they retain those images, what rights do they have in said images, etc.?

Perhaps my greatest disappointment was in one of the best theme park areas, Universal’s  Jurassic Park.  They have re-created that theme park for your enjoyment.  For those who have seen the movie(s), you will recognize the park, entry way, music, concepts, etc. All of which is good fun.  However, if you know the first movie, the purpose of the park was educational not just have fun looking at the dinosaurs.  While those elements are contained within Universal’s park, particularly in the Dinosaur Discovery Lab — they blew their opportunity to actually met the (fictional) Jurassic Park objective of education.  I can accept the hatching area where the live staff members portraying scientists reveal the miracle of a velociraptor emerging from the egg — and even the implication that they might have gotten the DNA from blood sucking insects — this is too much a part of the story line to be ignored.  But from then on every element could be today technology rather than Hollywood hokum   For example, they have a wall with imitation “neutrino imaging” technology — where side-scan radar is a real example that would accomplish the objective today.  Their recombinant DNA demonstration could do much with scientific accuracy that would inform the visitor.  Universal could take a page from Disney’s Epcot playbook and invite vendors of related technology to run a bit of a show room.  DNA sequencing would be an obvious example in this particular case.

I have been concerned with the “Crichtonazation” of technology for some time. Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Prey,  etc.) often uses the trope of technology gone astray (as opposed to people, or other flaws) that can re-enforce a public mis-trust of technology.  The problem of course is that there is an appropriate mis-trust of technology, that should be in the public eye and dialog without the hype that is necessary to sell books.

Best ride? Harry Potter at Universal — I’m an engineer, I understand wizards and magic, that is right down my (Diagone) alley — great use of most of the above devices — and did I mention that it snows inside the castle — much  cooler than getting wet. — and yes, I did avoid sharing my lunch … just.

wait, 3-d printing organs?

Several years ago, a relative of mine needed a liver transplant. While she did ultimately receive one, she was one of the lucky ones, but the wait was far too long. Sadly, she never fully recovered after the transplant and died a few months later. I thought then (and still think) if she had been able to get a transplant when she needed it, she might have lived. There is an organ shortage the world wide, but it is particularly acute in the United States because our medical system makes organ donation an ‘opt-in’ that ill and injured people’s families aren’t prepared to deal with. Social scientists and ethicists are still working on that problem, but maybe someday we won’t need donated organs, we’ll be able to 3-D print them.

This is a very, very early step towards someday being able to manufacture tissues and organs. They are just figure out how to do this. But the prospect of being able to manufacture tissue in this way is a huge leap forward. Of course, no one is going to be printing off a heart in the next year. But the potential benefits here are enormous. Skin grafts for burn victims might be one early application, but kidneys and livers are the real prize. Organ trading is illegal in every country on earth, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent very wealthy people from paying people, often uneducated people in third world countries, to ‘donate’ a kidney. I’m not saying that this will democratize access to healthcare – but I do think that this is an area where the natural scarcity leads to vastly, vastly unequal access and outcomes. ANYTHING that can move the needle is welcome, and long overdue.

Technology and the Slippery Slope

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d finished (listening to) Alexander McCall Smith’s “Creating Humans: Ethical Questions where Reproduction and Science Collide” Which is an insightful and detailed consideration of recent medical technology.  In my youth I took a class from Dr. Joshua Lederberg which was a predecessor to “Human Biology” programs, that outlined where he anticipated we would encounter challenges as medical science advanced.  No doubt updates will be needed a bit more often than every few decades as these advances accelerate.

Smith spends some time describing, then disparaging the ethical argument of the “slippery  slope”.  He asserts that just because scientists have demonstrated capability “A”, which seems reasonable, they can choose to avoid capability “B” which (some) consider unethical.  For example — if a baby is selected in-vitro to match a sibling so that stem cells from that baby can be used to save the life of a sibling, it is not necessarily true that such technology might be used to create “disposable” babies, or self-centered treatment for the parent(s).  And so far his argument is solid.  Given that people have free choice (an argument I cannot chose to deny), then it would be possible for a scientist to reach step A and reject step B.

However, this ignores a reality of technology and science.  The pioneer who reaches step A, may have no say about the work of his (far removed) acolyte who decides to move to step B.  And my choice of words is misleading, since it implies a shared moral perception, and the professional taking things to step B may be in a quite different culture and situation.

In which countries, for example, might the creation of “disposable” babies be,  if not acceptable, at least ignored? I can envision a few — places that do not share western values (as we like to call them) respecting human life — and perhaps value the health of the elderly or elite more.  Child sacrifice has been practiced in many parts of the world, and with a less scientific justification than saving the life of the king (or richest guy in town).   I would not put it past some smaller countries to leverage their autonomy for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful as they have in the past for hidden banking, to provide uncommon medical services.  And there are many procedures much less objectionable than disposable children.

For better or worse, the probability of B occurring, once A has been accomplished is significantly improved.  There is not a necessity of physics that B will follow A, but there may be a inevitability of human nature that things will go this direction.

So what’s a scientist/technologist to do? Smash the atom, you get an atom bomb. Cure small pox and you get weaponized anthrax.  Demonstrate a computer worm and you get international crime rings executing virtual bank robberies. The traditional mantra is that “technology is neutral”, or paraphrased “<whatever’s> don’t kill people, people kill people”.  Which is exactly Smith’s rebuttal to the slippery slope — these are issues of human choice, albeit also of human nature.

I suspect there are areas of research to reach goal “A”, that might be best rejected because the probability of this leading to goal “B” is increased to an unacceptable level.  I also suspect that if goal “A” or even goal “B” is perceived to have sufficient value in some communities, that the research will proceed in any case.

Do you have any candidates for “prohibited research” to avoid ending up at the bottom of the slippery slope?

Big Data is, well, Big

A recent special section of the Wall Street  Journal outlines a variety of aspects of “Big Data”.  Some of the key observations include:

  • We are talking really big … Facebook and Google have 100+ Petabytes of data (10^17th)
  • Beneficial results of analysis include: Cutting medical costs at Harrah’s by encouraging employees to use Urgent Care facilities vs Emergency Rooms; Identifying the potential for new turn signals in Ford cars, and isolating breast cancer survival factors.
  • The need for companies to know why they are collecting data (“haystacks without needles” is a delightful phrase from Darlan Shirazi), the lack of coherence — lots of collection, but no normalization/interconnection; and of course the inter-company race to be “THE” experts in applying big data (along with elbows in ribs, knifes in backs, and data un-shared)
  • We don’t have enough professionals trained to analyze, or properly formulate the software to sift out the desired answers. (US demand could exceed supply by 50% circa 2018)

I first encountered big data many years ago when we were providing systems with nine and seven track tape drives to oil companies so they could copy their field records over to new media.  This effort has continued perpetually since then to both keep the data available, to avoid “bit rot” and to perform new analysis.  It is this last point that is actually key. Old data is not dead data. New techniques of evaluating old data can yield new insight and results. The aforementioned insight on breast cancer was a result of looking at previously analyzed results in a slightly different way.  And of course old records can be invaluable. One of the larger cybercrimes publicized was the 2008 theft of oil company data logs, analysis and estimated values that may inform the acquisition by China of rights to a number potential oil fields.

There are some interesting big data characteristics to consider:

  • Some of the data bases are coherent, collected by a single entity — albeit for multiple  forms of analysis. 
  • However — cross connecting data sources may yield very interesting results — consider what might result from cross indexing genomic data with Facebook entries; or with “PatientsLikeMe” information.
  • There is a good and growing business in tools that can provide various “analytics” capabilities.  This will be a leading area for application of artificial intelligence techniques as well. (Of course we call things AI until they become mainstream, then give them different names.)

There will be many (many, many) applications here that will improve human health, welfare and the human condition.  — And I almost was able to complete this without mentioning privacy issues, but I just failed.

The future of 3-D Printing

A good friend of mine is a pretty active hobbyist 3-D printer. He has two of the things – and sometimes both of them are even fully assembled and working! What isn’t often discussed in all the hype about 3-D printing is just how difficult the things are to use. He spends ages tinkering with temperatures(for the extruder and the build platform), the extruder flow rates, the slice sizes, and the fill patterns whenever he tries to print a new design. It usually takes him at least 5, if not 10 attempts to get a usable print. The fact is, 3-D printing is still very much in it’s infancy. That’s not to say it’s not going to change our world, I just think it’s going to be more stuff like this 3-D printed skull than home-made AR-15 lowers.

And that’s still really cool! A medical implant that is perfectly scaled and shaped to the body of the person who’s receiving it. That may not be the at-home revolution that a lot of people are dreaming about, but even customization on this level has the possibility of improving a lot of lives. And have you heard of Shapeways?

It looks like it’s just an Etsy for 3-D printed stuff, but it’s actually much more than that. If you have a design, you can commission a print from Shapeways. If you want to, you can upload it to their site for sale to other people who want your design. So far, jewelry seems really popular, which makes sense. The power of the 3-D printing is in the customization it allows. It’s never going to make much sense to print out your own… Legos at home rather than buying them in a shop, but how cool would it be to be able to design your own Lego set, have it custom made, and have it shipped to your home?

Know Thy Self — and Thy Genome?

The March Issue of IEEE Spectrum has an article on the technology and experience of having your genome analysed.  This is technology with significant social implications.

There are places where you  can get a partial genome evaluation such as 23andMe. These are fairly cheap ($99 ball park) and target a modest number (500,000 or so) of the 3 Billion base pairs, and some evaluation of mitochondrial DNA as well. The evaluation identifies 200+ health traits, and also your family tree as presented in Y Chromosomes and the mitochondrial DNA. But this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The evaluation done for Eliza Strickland (Spectrum Associate Editor) was testing one of the new technologies which will eventually provide an analysis of your full genome, with a target price tag of $1000. Or as the article more accurately states, $1000 for the test, $100,000 for the analysis.  Eliza’s test results were focused strictly on the exome (30 million base pairs), aka the gene sections.  Significant control and epigenetic considerations were not included. For example, the control over blue eyes is not in your genes but in the “Junk DNA” that represents the vast bulk of your genome. She was not given “raw” data, but a carefully analysed and reviewed report on a subset.   All of which reflects a division of “opinion” on how DNA evaluation results should be presented.  So here are some of the nasty questions … and I encourage readers to provide additional questions, and also insight on how different countries, cultures, etc. are responding to the rapidly emerging field.

  • Who owns/controls the results?  The individual or the medical  consultants or ???
  • And who has access?  — often insurance funded (or even related) results are shared (with your ‘standing’ permission) with your insurance company.
    (In the US, the GINA law provides some protection against insurance companies and employers discriminating based on DNA information– but not life insurance, long term care insurance)  Often in applying for insurance you are asked to disclose medical conditions — does this include information from your DNA analysis?
  • Who can run these tests?  Can I take a sample off the cup you left behind at a restaurant, have it analyzed and use the results? This was done by the LA Police seeking a serial killer (via close relative DNA analysis.)
  • You can pursue some personal research on your results via the National Institute of Health.— but what if you surface a (currently) incurable disease?  And of course it will be a probability — say 60% or 20%?
  • It’s not all about you! — you share genes with parents, children and siblings. What you find out about yourself will have some relation to these relations.
  • There are significant potential benefits — 
    • Preventative action — Diet, treatment — is possible
    • Personalized treatment — Doctors can use this information to avoid medications that won’t help in your situation, or might cause other problems
    • Data mining can take your information and condition, associate it with thousands of others, and identify new genetic factors.

Long term it is hard to imagine that we won’t be carrying (embedded?) a memory chip with our Genome information that provides unique identity, information for all medical care situations, and so forth. In reality, we already carry this in every cell in our body and every cell we leave behind.

What concerns/opportunities does this raise in your mind?
What is your country/culture saying about this?