U.S. Government Checking How Wide Open The Pathogenic Barn Door Is

Earlier this summer there were a series of incidents involving pathogens (anthrax, H5N1 influenza, and smallpox) in both Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities (the Food and Drug Administration was responsible for the NIH lab where the smallpox was found).  Perhaps overshadowed by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the lapses in security were notable and prompted institutional reviews, at least one congressional hearing and increased calls for oversight.  So far those efforts have been focused on the agencies directly affected by the lapses.  The CDC has issued a report on the anthrax incident, and the Government Accountability Office has been asked to assess how well federal agencies manage the pathogens under their control.

The Executive Branch joined the fray last week.  Posting to the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog, OSTP Director John Holdren and Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco described the August 18 memo distributed to several federal agencies (any agencies operating facilities that may use, transport, or possess biomedical toxins or infectious agents; a longer list than you might expect).  Amongst the recommendations:

  • Conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down’ – a review of biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols – within 30 days of the issuance of the memo.  This should happen for both federal facilities and non-federal facilities that use federal funding.  Documentation of these activities should be submitted by October 15.
  • Interagency reviews of federal practices and protocols in biosecurity will run in parallel with a non-federal review (presumably the one initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services described on the bottom of page 3.

More information should be available as the reviews called for in the memo take shape.


Tomorrow’s Tricorder Getting Closer To Today

The finalist teams were announced in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE.  The submissions of the 10 finalists were the best amongst 21 submitted.  Judging criteria included health assessment, user experience and safety.  The finalists will have their submissions subjected to consumer testing and evaluations of diagnostic experience.  Successful submissions are supposed to diagnose five vital signs, and at least 13 health conditions.  That’s certainly a fair distance from what the Star Trek Medical Tricorder can do, but that one is fictional.

The 10 finalist teams represent six countries:

  • Aezon (Rockville, Maryland), led by Tatiana Rypinski, a team of student engineers from Johns Hopkins University partnering with the Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design.
  • CloudDX (Mississauga, Canada), a team from medical devices manufacturer Biosign and led by company chief medical officer, Dr. Sonny Kohli.
  • Danvantri (Chennai, India), a team from technology manufacturer American Megatrends India and led by company Director and CEO, Sridharan Mani.
  • DMI (Cambridge, Massachusetts), a team led by Dr. Eugene Y. Chan of the DNA Medicine Institute partnering with NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Dynamical Biomarkers Group (Zhongli City, Taiwan), a team of physicians, scientists and engineers led by Harvard Medical School professor Chung-Kang Peng.
  • Final Frontier Medical Devices (Paoli, Pennsylvania), a team led by the founders of Basil Leaf Technologies—brothers Dr. Basil Harris, an emergency room physician, and George Harris, a network engineer.
  • MESI Simplifying diagnostics (Ljubljana, Slovenia), a team from diagnostic medical device manufacturer MESI and led by company CEO, Jakob Susteric.
  • SCANADU (Moffett Field, California), a team from Silicon Valley-based start-up SCANADU led by technology entrepreneur and company co-founder and CEO, Walter De Brouwer.
  • SCANurse (London, England), a team from diagnostic medical manufacturer SCANurse and led by biomedical engineer and company founder, Anil Vaidya.
  • zensor (Belfast, Ireland), a team from clinical sensor and electrode company Intelesens and led by chief technology officer, Prof. Jim McLaughlin.

Final round testing will take place in the second half of 2015, with the expected awarding of the prize to a qualifying team in 2016.

Science Fiction To Motivate The Imagination (And The Innovation)

Next month William Morrow will release Hieroglyph, a collection of science fiction short stories edited by the Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.  The name of the collection is taken from a theory advanced by science fiction writer Neil Stephenson, and a larger writing project of which this book is a part.  The Hieroglyph Theory describes the kind of science fiction that can motivate scientists and engineers to create a future.  A Hieroglyph story provides a complete picture of the future, with a compelling innovation as part of that future.  An example would be the Asimov model of robotics.

Hieroglyph will be available on September 9th at the usual outlets, but you can read a preview online now.  It includes biographies of the authors (an impressive collection of people, many of whom have scientific credentials in addition to their literary work), and the prefatory material from Stephenson, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the book’s editors.  This project has been in the works for about three years now, and hopefully this book will represent a continuation rather than an end.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of August 25

The main television awards ceremony, the Emmys, is being held tonight (and emceed by Late Night host Seth Meyers), so most shows are dark tonight, even if they have new episodes this week.  In this week’s repeats, Simon Helberg’s latest appearance with Craig Ferguson is on tonight.  Helberg plays an engineer on The Big Bang Theory.  On Thursday you can see Rhona Mitra’s appearance on Conan from earlier this summer.  She plays a scientist on the show Last Ship, which just wrapped its first season in the U.S.  There is a repeat of Brit Marling’s latest Tonight Show appearance on Friday.  She plays a scientist in her latest film I Origins, and yes, I did miss this the first time around.

On Tuesday’s all new Daily Show, David Rose will talk about design and the Internet.  He’s a media scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  On Wednesday Michael Sheen, who plays sex researcher William Masters on Masters of Sex, visits with Stephen Colbert.  If you can’t wait until Wednesday, you can watch Sheen’s recent appearance with Craig Ferguson Tuesday night.

In other science and technology television news, the end of the latest batch of new MythBusters episodes came with a sad announcement.  The Build Team – Kari Byron, Grant Imahara, and Tory Belleci – has busted its last myths on the program.  The show will continue, but with just one team of MythBusters, much as it was in the show’s first couple of years.  I will miss them, though that may not sink in until the next batch of new episodes premieres in 2015.

Smithsonian Issues Call For Digital Transcribers

Earlier this month the Smithsonian family announced the launching of its Transcription Center website.  As you might guess Smithsonian museums have lots of scanned documents that can’t be read by optical character recognition software.  Such software has a much easier time with typewritten or printed text; handwritten documents still could benefit from the assistance of human eyes.

Of the projects currently available for transcribing, many are focused on scientific collections and notebooks.  People have to register (only a user name and email) in order to transcribe documents or review transcriptions from others.  The Smithsonian project is comparable to crowdsourced transcription efforts at other libraries and archives.

The project has been in beta for over a year, so it should be done with most of the growing pains associated with a new online effort.  You can review and/or transcribe as much or as little as you like.

Delaware Sets Law To Deal With Digital Records Post-Mortem

The state of Delaware recently passed a law that could provide a boost to the services that help maintain digital assets after death.  It follows on suggested text approved by the Uniform Commission on Laws.

The need for this wasn’t obvious to me in earlier posts on the subject, as I figured directives to relatives and/or representatives could address the matter of accessing online accounts, blogs, etc.  But access is just one part of the matter.  The extent of one’s digital collection is usually larger than expected – even to the decedent.  And many of the items in that collection are more than information.  Being able to transfer, download or otherwise take hold of the photos, recordings, and other content can be just as meaningful to the family as the financial accounts that might be more top of mind.

Delaware is but one state of 50, so for now most of us will need to take our own steps, through powers of attorney or similar directives, to make sure digital assets and accounts are addressed.  And then tell your relatives.

SpaceX Failure – Risk Is Still Its Business

Earlier today a SpaceX rocket test resulted in the explosion of the test vehicle, a three-engine version of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.  This particular rocket already had a successful test (the Falcon 9 is a reusable design).  No injuries were reported, and the rocket did not carry a commercial payload.

As others have explained, a perfect test program suggests a program that is not pushing the boundaries of technology far enough.  But SpaceX has other programs running, several launches scheduled, and is pursuing action against the government to gain entree into the competition for important launch contracts.  It would not surprise me to see those in competition with SpaceX to use this test failure as ammunition against the company.