Tag: bioengineering

Bioethics News

The Moral Question That Stanford Asks Its Bioengineering Students

June 28, 2017

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When students in Stanford University’s Introduction to Bioengineering course sit for their final exams, the first question that they have to answer is about our ability to write DNA.

Scientists have fully sequenced the genomes of humans, trees, octopuses, bacteria, and thousands of other species. But it may soon become possible to not just readlarge genomes but also to write them—synthesizing them from scratch. “Imagine a music synthesizer with only four keys,” said Stanford professor Drew Endy to the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Each represents one of the four building blocks of DNA—A, C, G, and T. Press the keys in sequence and you can print out whatever stretch of DNA you like.

In 2010, one group did this for a bacterium with an exceptionally tiny genome, crafting all million or so letters of its DNA and implanting it into a hollow cell. Another team is part-way through writing the more complex genome of baker’s yeast, with 12 million letters. The human genome is 300 times bigger, and as I reported last month, others are trying to build the technology that will allow them to create genomes of this size.

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The Atlantic

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Caption: Mark McClendon, Zaida Alvarez Pinto, Samuel I. Stupp, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

When someone suffers a fully severed spinal cord, it’s considered highly unlikely the injury will heal on its own. That’s because the spinal cord’s neural tissue is notorious for its inability to bridge large gaps and reconnect in ways that restore vital functions. But the image above is a hopeful sight that one day that could change.

Here, a mouse neural stem cell  (blue and green) sits in a lab dish, atop a special gel containing a mat of synthetic nanofibers (purple). The cell is growing and sending out spindly appendages, called axons (green), in an attempt to re-establish connections with other nearby nerve cells.

So, what spurred this particular neural stem cell to reactivate itself? The secret lies in the nanofiber gel. It’s been specially engineered to mimic the structure within a healthy spinal cord, as well as seeded with biochemical signals that naturally prompt the cell to grow and start forming connections.

The image—a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2016 BioArt competition—was taken by Mark McClendon and Zaida Alvarez Pinto, researchers in the lab of Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. They used a scanning electron microscope to capture the image and then colorized the neural stem cell and nanofibers to make it a work of art.

McClendon and Alvarez Pinto hope that this gel, along with other bioengineered materials under development in the Stupp lab, might one day be used to prevent or reverse loss of function in people who suffer severe spinal cord or other nerve injuries.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Brain Scans Show Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Source: Getty Images

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), early diagnosis is critical to allow for possible interventions at a time when the brain is most amenable to change. But that’s been tough to implement for a simple reason: the symptoms of ASD, such as communication difficulties, social deficits, and repetitive behaviors, often do not show up until a child turns 2 or even 3 years old.

Now, an NIH-funded research team has news that may pave the way for earlier detection of ASD. The key is to shift the diagnostic focus from how kids act to how their brains grow. In their brain imaging study, the researchers found that, compared to other children, youngsters with ASD showed unusually rapid brain growth from infancy to age 2. In fact, the growth differences were already evident by their first birthdays, well before autistic behaviors typically emerge.

Autism spectrum disorder includes a range of developmental conditions, such as autism and Asperger syndrome, that are characterized by challenges in social skills and communication. Scientists have long known that teens and adults with ASD have unusually large brain volumes. Researchers, including Heather Hazlett and Joseph Piven of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found more than a decade ago that those differences in brain size emerge by about age 2 [1]. However, no one had ever visually tracked those developmental differences.

In the new study reported in Nature [2], Hazlett, Piven, and their colleagues set out to collect that visual evidence. They examined 106 infants at high risk of ASD, based on an older sibling with that diagnosis.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

Stem cell Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder    

What happened to the disgraced Italian surgeon who dazzled the world with artificial tracheas built up with stem cells, Paolo Macchiarini? Despite all the hype, several of his patients eventually died; others are still seriously ill. The ensuing debacle dragged Sweden’s Karolinska Institute into the mire and Swedish police are investigating whether he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

At the moment Macchiarini is the head of a research team in bioengineering and regenerative medicine at the University of Kazan, in Tatarstan, about 800 kilometers east of Moscow. But Russian authorities do not allow him to do clinical work. Instead he is confined to doing research on baboons.

Unfortunately, the story of the Italian Icarus is the story of many research projects with stem cells –noisily rising and rising and rising and then silently falling out of sight. Very few stem cell therapies have reached stage IV of clinical trials.

As journalist Michael Brooks points out in the BMJ, stem cell research is a field plagued by unrealistic expectations. One study showed that 70% of newspaper articles about stem cell research have stated that clinical applications are “just around the corner,” “in the near future,” or “within 5 to 10 years or sooner.” 

“This is not simply a problem of media hype,” writes Brooks. “In a surprisingly large number of cases, the source of these unrealistic expectations can be traced back to the scientists themselves.”

Another source of false hope is the very success of some treatments.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Cool Videos: Starring the Wiring Diagram of the Human Brain

The human brain contains distinct geographic regions that communicate throughout the day to process information, such as remembering a neighbor’s name or deciding which road to take to work. Key to such processing is a vast network of densely bundled nerve fibers called tracts. It’s estimated that there are thousands of these tracts, and, because the human brain is so tightly packed with cells, they often travel winding, contorted paths to form their critical connections. That situation has previously been difficult for researchers to image three-dimensional tracts in the brain of a living person.

That’s now changing with a new approach called tractography, which is shown with the 3D data visualization technique featured in this video. Here, researchers zoom in and visualize some of the neural connections detected with tractography that originate or terminate near the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain essential to learning and memory. If you’re wondering about what the various colors represent, they indicate a tract’s orientation within the brain: side to side is red, front to back is green, and top to bottom is blue.

The video is the work of Tyler Ard, a neuroscientist in the NIH-supported lab of Arthur Toga at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  As Ard points out, tractography is far more than just cool 3D pictures of the brain’s wiring. The technique is a mainstay in the Human Connectome Project, which has set out to map the brain’s neural connections in their entirety. With further refinements, tractography could also one day be used for even more pinpoint imaging of the brain’s circuitry, potentially bringing greater precision to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of neurological disorders.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Chimeras with benefits? Transplants from bioengineered human/pig donors

By Brad Segal In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown … Continue reading

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

Scientists Have Achieved a 60-year-old Dream to Engineer Life with an Alien Genetic Code

February 1, 2017

(Quartz) – All of life, as we know it, is created from the same four letters: A, T, G, and C. These letters form the basis of DNA, and the way they are laid out in our genetic code is what makes you unique from the trillions of other life forms on Earth. But what if we were to add just two more letters to the mix? Imagine adding two new letters to a language that only has four letters: The possibilities are immense. That’s exactly what biologist Floyd Romesberg at the Scripps Research Institute and his colleagues hoped to test. And in a feat of bioengineering, his team has created new and thriving semisynthetic organisms with DNA consisting of letters A, T, G, and C plus new ones: X and Y.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Built for the Future. Study Shows Wearable Devices Can Help Detect Illness Early

Caption: Stanford University’s Michael Snyder displays some of his wearable devices.
Credit: Steve Fisch/Stanford School of Medicine

Millions of Americans now head out the door each day wearing devices that count their steps, check their heart rates, and help them stay fit in general. But with further research, these “wearables” could also play an important role in the early detection of serious medical conditions. In partnership with health-care professionals, people may well use the next generation of wearables to monitor vital signs, blood oxygen levels, and a wide variety of other measures of personal health, allowing them to see in real time when something isn’t normal and, if unusual enough, to have it checked out right away.

In the latest issue of the journal PLoS Biology [1], an NIH-supported study offers an exciting glimpse of this future. Wearing a commercially available smartwatch over many months, more than 40 adults produced a continuous daily stream of accurate personal health data that researchers could access and monitor. When combined with standard laboratory blood tests, these data—totaling more than 250,000 bodily measurements a day per person—can detect early infections through changes in heart rate.

The study, led by Michael Snyder, a scientist at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, grew out of a larger ongoing clinical research study that tracks adults who are healthy or pre-diabetic for genomic and biochemical clues into health and disease. The researchers wondered whether adding wearables to the study could give them another window into the differences between early diabetes and health.

After evaluating more than 400 wearables, the team members settled on seven that were inexpensive and easy to use.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

Head Transplant Patient Will Use Virtual Reality to Smooth Transition to New Body

November 28, 2016

(Smithsonian) – The other big problem—besides the almost insurmountable technical details and the $10 to $100 million price tag—is that transplanting a head onto a new body could be a recipe for confusion and madness. The transplantee may not be psychologically ready for the body switch. That’s one reason Canavero has teamed up with the fledgling Chicago-based company Inventum Bioengineering Technologies to develop a virtual reality system to prep transplant patients for the traumatic swap.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

The 2016 Kavli Futures Symposium: Ethical foundations of Novel Neurotechnologies: Identity, Agency and Normality

By Sean Batir (1), Rafael Yuste (1), Sara Goering (2), and Laura Specker Sullivan (2)
Image from Kavli Futures Symposium

(1) Neurotechnology Center, Kavli Institute of Brain Science, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027

(2) Department of Philosophy, and Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195

Detailed biographies for each author are located at the end of this post

Often described as the “two cultures,” few would deny the divide between the humanities and the sciences. This divide must be broken down if humanistic progress is to be made in the future of transformative technologies. The 2016 Kavli Futures Symposium held by Dr. Rafael Yuste and Dr. Sara Goering at the Neurotechnology Center of Columbia University addressed the divide between the humanities and sciences by curating an interdisciplinary dialogue between leading neuroscientists, neural engineers, and bioethicists across three broad topics of conversation. These three topics include conversations on identity and mind reading, agency and brain stimulation, and definitions of normality in the context of brain enhancement. The message of such an event is clear: dialogue between neurotechnology and ethics is necessary because the novel neurotechnologies are poised to generate a profound transformation in our society.

With the emergence of technology that can read the brain’s patterns at an intimate level, questions arose about the implications for how these methods could reveal the core of human identity – the mind. Jack Gallant, from UC Berkeley, reported on a neural decoder that can identify the visual imagery used by human subjects (1).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.