One of the atmospheric touches early on in Interstellar (no spoilers, I promise) involves Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chasing a rogue unmanned aerial vehicle until they are able to take control and land it. They then cannibalize it for parts.
While there is not yet a flock of rogue drones wandering through the air, it’s reasonable to think that eventually some UAVs will crash in places where it won’t be so easy to recover them, in whole or in parts. Absent some spy-level self-destruct magic, one method of dealing with this future debris is to make it biodegradable.
One group working on this for drones is competing at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (yeah, I didn’t know this was a thing either). They have found a company that uses mushrooms to form the bulk of the drone body. Using other natural materials, such as cellulose and proteins from wasp spit, the bodies of these drones are both biodegradable and water resistant.
Now, there are still several parts that are non-biodegradable, but work is proceeding on making biodegradable versions of sensors, rotors and other parts to make a completely biodegradable craft. Besides minimizing the environmental impact of crashing electronics in the wilderness, these craft can also make it harder for technology to fall into the ‘wrong hands’ – unless they get to the craft really fast.
Ebola is not the only virus on the government’s mind these days. Earlier today (H/T ScienceInsider) the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services announced a pause in new funding for gain-of-function research on influenza, SARS and MERS. Gain-of-function research tries to make existing viruses more pathogenetic or transmissible. Additionally, the government will encourage those involved in current gain-of-function research to pause said research.
The government has also initiated a deliberation process it intends to complete in the next year. Both the National Research Council and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will work on recommendations that would inform a federal policy on gain-of-function research.
This is not the first time the government has tried to address the matter of gain-of-function research. However, the current focus on Ebola and the recent problems with lab security of viruses could (and perhaps should) boost the scrutiny of this process. As ScienceInsider has reported that many groups have been advocating for some kind of pause or deliberative process to think through gain-of-function studies. But there could be resistance, if the incredulous Tweet included at the end of the piece is any indication. It is a Tweet, but it mischaracterizes the nature of the pause. It does not call for a moratorium on deadly pathogen research, but a pause on research that would increase the lethality or ease of spread of certain pathogens. Unfortunately, the current perceptions of viruses and efforts to stop them make me think that most will not try to properly parse the nature of the proposed pause.
Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on antibiotic resistance. President Obama asked for the report in 2013 to make practical recommendations for combating the rise of antibiotic resistance which has been keenly felt over the last decade. The report offers three major recommendations for addressing the threat:
- Increasing the surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
- Improving the longevity of current antibiotics.
- Increasing the rate at which new antibiotics and other treatments are developed and implemented
The second and third recommendations are as much about using antibiotics as they are about addressing concerns over resistance. You can refine existing antibiotics to increase their shelf life and effectiveness, but it’s as meaningful to be more judicious with the use of these drugs. They are very effective tools, but they lose this effectiveness with overuse. By increasing the use of other treatments and otherwise trying not to hit every bug with large doses of antibiotics, we can hopefully stave off the rise of resistant bacteria.
Like with many things the United States developed over the course of the 20th century, antibiotic use and infrastructure could benefit from new investments and research. It’s hard to see this getting much positive attention in the current climate. After all, Congress has been less than speedy in opening the purse for fighting Ebola.
The report was released in conjunction with other Executive Branch actions.
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.
In March the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released a guidance memo on patents involving natural processes, natural products, or laws of nature. This is the second such memo USPTO has issued connected to the Myriad and Mayo cases. Those decisions dealt with medical tests (genetic in the case of Myriad and diagnostic in the case of Mayo) and whether or not the work done with various natural products and processes was sufficient to warrant patent protection. The USPTO requested comments on the guidance memo, which were due by July 31.
Reaction to the guidance memo suggests many feel the memo goes much further than the Supreme Court intended with respect to its decisions. To wit, the USPTO guidance would apply to patents involving natural processes, natural products or laws of nature outside of the genetic and medical testing contexts of the Myriad and Mayo cases. This inference is made from the examples cited in the guidance, which include derivatives of natural products. The Supreme Court has not ruled on such patents, and some comments argue that absent Supreme Court rulings on that subject matter, the USPTO should not provide guidance to its examiners that would constrain patent activity.
However, USPTO has recently taken more active measures in terms of evaluating what can be patented. In the amicus brief (highlights by The New York Times) USPTO filed in the Myriad case the agency argued for distinguishing between products that were merely isolated from natural processes, natural products or rules of nature and those products that represented additional work. than mere isolation. It may see this guidance as an extension of that approach in areas outside of genetic tests.
Again, I am not a lawyer. Readers who are should feel free to complain in the comments.
It’s too soon after the close of the comment period to know exactly what USPTO might do in response to the comments. It’s conceivable that parties opposed to the current guidance may take the office to court should any revisions are not to their liking.
The next meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues is in Washington on next Wednesday, August 20. The agenda is now available, and the meeting will be webcast via a link on the meetings page of the website.
The focus of this one day meeting is on neuroscience. Panels will focus on cognitive enhancements, direct-to-consumer neurotechnology and neuroscience research. As I speculated in May, these topics are part of the second volume of the Commission’s report on the brain. Perhaps the Commission will hint at when Volume 2 will be ready (I’d guess by the end of the year.)
Public comments will be accepted before the meeting. Email the commission at info at bioethics dot gov.
Last week The Wall Street Journal reported on a new project from Google.org – the Baseline Study (H/T ScienceInsider). Starting with a pilot group of 175, the study would collect anonymous genetic and molecular information (according to the article) to construct a more comprehensive data-based model of what a human is. Such a picture would ideally help researchers better identify symptoms and causes of various diseases. A desired outcome would be the ability to find markers of various diseases much earlier in people than is currently possible.
Of course, such a long-term study is not new. What would be different here is the potential scope of the project, should it expand beyond the initial population of 175. The project is lead by Dr. Andrew Cohen, a molecular biologist whose previous major achievement has been in high-volume HIV tests of blood plasma. Working in volume is something he’s comfortable with. The project is mindful of the need to preserve anonymity, and has stated information will be used strictly for health and medical purposes and not shared with insurance companies. Institutional review boards will be involved with the study, and once it grows beyond the initial group of 175, boards at the medical schools at Duke and Stanford Universities will be involved in controlling access and use of the information.
For reasons that escape me, I can find little mention of the project on the Google.org website. Even the mentions found on Google + don’t connect to the organization. It would seem to me that the Wall Street Journal article, and the subsequent press on it, could be part of an effort to gauge public interest and concerns with the project. The lack of details (the articles have little more to go on than the information provided to The Wall Street Journal) are frustrating.
And then there’s 23andMe. Continue reading