Episode 3: Can science defeat ageing? CRISPR for CF; How will autonomous cars change our cities?

The world is getting better, not worse, thanks to Enlightenment values – Stephen Pinker

Harvard University Professor Stephen Pinker, pictured above, argues the things are getting steadily better in the world

The above piece was broadcast on Drivetime, RTE Radio 1, on 19th February ’18

 

The election of Donald Trump, looming Brexit and the ominous re-awakening of fascism across Europe are just some of the reasons why many people today might think that things are getting worse, as we struggle to cope with an unstable world.

However, Stephen Pinker, the celebrated Prof of Psychology at Harvard University, argues in his new book ‘Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress’ (Penguin Random House, 2018) that, despite all the pessimism, things are getting better.

This is due to the ongoing, and spreading influence of Enlightenment ideas around the world, the author argues, while presenting data, charts and graphs to support his optimistic position.

Prof Pinker’s is giving a talk at TCD on Friday 23rd, February

Irish film wins top award at New York science film festival

An Irish documentary has won an international prize, awarded by the AAAS in the USA (Pic: Eilis O’Dowd)

An Irish documentary called Feats of Modest Valour depicting the lives of three people living with Parkinson’s disease and scientists working to cure it has won the Scientist Award at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York last week.

The Scientist Award is awarded by Science, and its publisher the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to a film that portrays, in an accurate and inventive way, the life of a scientist.

The jury included Nobel prize-winning scientist, Professor Martin Chalfe, and award-winning science columnist for the New York Times, Professor Carl Zimmer.

In ‘Feats of Modest Valour’, three individuals live clockwork existences, dictated by a strict regime of medication to manage the physical reality of living with Parkinson’s disease.

Brian Carney is a farmer from County Mayo whose son had to take over the running of the family farm from a very young age; Milena Lulic is a Croatian World War II survivor who faces her condition head-on with great dignity; and Tom Hickey, the Irish actor, talks about how suffering for his art takes on a whole new meaning with the disease.

Interwoven with these individual stories, the documentary depicts researchers at NUI Galway’s Centre for Research in Medical Devices (CURÁM), led by Dr Eilís Dowd, who are developing a novel therapeutic approach which they hope will revolutionise treatment of the condition.

The film uses animated sequences to delve into the brain of someone with Parkinson’s disease, and see how dying cells can be replaced by stem cells supported by a natural biomaterial “scaffold”.

“This is a film about science and medicine, about scientists and patients, about art and music, but most of all, about hope,” said Dr Dowd. “It was a genuine privilege to work on this project with such talented filmmakers and such inspirational patients.”

The film is co-directed and co-produced by Mia Mullarkey and Alice McDowell of Ishka Films, and is due to be screened on RTE 1 on Sunday November 12th at 10:30 pm. To find out more about the film, see www.featsofmodestvalour.com.

‘Feats of Modest Valour’ was produced through the Science on Screen initiative between CÚRAM, Science Foundation Ireland, and the Galway Film Centre who manage Galway’s UNESCO City of Film designation.

What does it mean to be human in the age of AI and robotics?

Professor Kathleen Richardson, who will give a talk in UCD in November, is Director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots (Source: UCD)

The advance of AI, robotics, and other new technologies are leading to an unprecedented transformation of the human world.

The plotting the future series of public lectures at UCD is seeking to explore how the place of humans in the world is changing, and the implications of that.

Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robotics and AI, De Montfort University Leicester will deliver the fifth lecture in the series on the 9th November with a talk entitled ‘Turning Persons into Property and Property into Persons’.

Kathleen Richardson is the Director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots and Senior Research Fellow in Ethics of Robotics and part of the Europe-wide DREAM project (Development of Robot-Enhance Therapy for Children with AutisM).

Kathleen is author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines. She is now working on her second manuscript The Robot Intermediary? An Anthropology of Attachment and Robots for Children with Autism.

This is a public lecture and all are welcome, but registration is required in advance. To register visit http://www.ucd.ie/humanities/events/plottingthefuture/

Does bionics ultimately threaten our humanity?

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1 (7-11-2016)

woman-with-bionic-arm
A woman with a ‘bionic’ arm. Science fiction is becoming science fact. (Image credit: Telegraph, UK)

Being human means our bodies, tissues and organs, will eventually deteriorate and malfunction. However, advances in medical science mean we can replace aging or diseased hips, knees, even hearts with advanced man-made materials. Many of our bodies, in this way, have become partly artificial or synthetic.

Advances in medical science and engineering mean that a lot more of us, in the developed western world at least, are set to have all manner of misfiring tissues and organs, maybe even our brains, replaced by something synthetic, better, and perhaps an awful lot better. The age of truly bionic man and woman is upon us.

History

The replacement of body parts with something man-made – what we now call bionics – is something that goes back a long way in human history.

Back as far as 1,500 BC there is a report of an Ancient egyptian mummy having its toe amputated and replaced by a prosthetic made of wood and leather. This was done apparently because the Egyptians felt that amputees would be cursed in life as well as the afterlife.

During the middle ages, crude prosthetic limbs ere available, but only to the very wealthy. These were made of wood, leather and metal, and the replacement leg would resemble a peg leg, with a hook replacing a hand.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in about 1897 the scientist Alessandro Volta – he of electricity fame – found that hearing could be restored by the use of electrical stimulation. This was a big advance in medical bionics.

However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that bionics entered the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman on our television screens.

The bionic man, played by Lee Majors, was human, had a bionic left eye, bionic legs, and a bionic right arm, while the Bionic Woman, played by Lindsay Wagner, had similar bionic limbs, but also had a bionic ear.

Science fiction becomes fact

What was science fiction then is now fact. A bionic eye, and ear have already been built, providing people with something even better than the original, while there have been remarkable advances in bionic limbs, including the human hand.

We could today, build a Bionic Man and Woman, with bionic ears, eyes, and limbs (not necessarily with the ability to run at 60 mph, but it could be done if felt necessary), but science is moving beyond what was speculation in the 1970s.

Neuroscientists have begun to decode the language of the brain, so that it is possible to know what word or series of words they are thinking. This is important because it means that people who are disabled, or paralysed can be now trained to move robotic limbs, or a new limb attached to their bodies.

Bionics and neuroscience is, thus, liberating disabled people from their physical dependence on people around them, and they can control their artificial limbs, or wheelchairs by simply thinking. At the same time, materials are becoming more sophisticated, and these can enhance malfunctioning biological tissues.

Bionic eyes, which pick up signals from the environment and transmit electrical impulses straight to the brain will soon help the blind ‘see’ again. A Bionic ear has been developed which restores hearing to the profoundly deaf via an implant which receives and transmits signals in the inner ear.

A bionic hand, with tremendous dexterity has been developed for a Danish man, which has been integrated by neurosurgeons with his existing nervous system. Bionic feet and legs under the thought control of the brain have been developed. A fully artificial heart has been successfully implanted, and there even moves to build an electronic implant to replace malfunctioing parts of the brain, or to construct a fully artificial brain based on the biological brain.

What this all means is that we are seeing a general trend towards humans becoming more artificial, as we live longer, and want to maintain the functioning of our limbs, organs and brain for as long as possible.

What do people want in life? They want to alive at the age of 90, but still active and healthy, physically and mentally. Bionics offers this, and its alluring.

No one knows where this all will end, or how artificial we will eventually become. Some believe that the trend towards having more and more bionic body parts threatens our humanity. How far can we go towards becoming artificial before we stop being human? It is a huge philosophical question we’ll face in future.

Irish research

The majority of the work in Ireland in this area is on the repair of body parts, through what is called regenerative medicine, rather than bionics, which involves the complete replacement of a tissue or organ, with something new and artificial.

Bionics, and regenerative medicine are moving ahead together and in parallel. It is perhaps a bit like the car industry.

There will always be a market for a brand new cars. Some people will buy a new car because they can afford it, and they want the latest technology and performance capabilities.

Others might want a new car because they have crashed their old one, and is beyond repair. However, there are also people who do not feel the need for a new car, and are quite happy to have their old car service, fixed, and on the road for as long as possible.

Ireland, in this sense, is more in the service and repair market, than the new car sales market, but both are equally important areas.

In terms of bionics, researchers in the University of Limerick, led by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, along with an industrial partner, MTD Precision Engineering (Cork) are aiming to develop a full body Bionic Suit to help the elderly.

The Axo Suit project aims to help the aging live independently and stay mobile. The suit needs to be light enough to allow them to do daily tasks, such as going for a walk, or putting clothes on the line, but strong enough to give support.

The goal is to produce an ‘exoskeleton’ or bionic suit, which will sell for between 5k and 10k. This could keep many people out of nursing homes.

AT TCD, the Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Group (AMBER) led by Professor Danny Kelly’s group is involved in developing 3D bio-printing of tissues and organs, which could negate the need for organ transplants.

It could also lead to printing of organs or tissues made up of a combination of natural and artificial components, or even totally artificial components. There has already been a successful transplant of an artificial heart, and with natural organs hard to come by, this trend is set to increase.

Also at TCD, Dr Mark Ahearne’s group are developing bioengineered corneas which can be used for cornea transplants to restore sight or relieve pain. The artificial cornea has been made by using artificial fibres that mimic the ability of natural collagen fibres in the cornea to allow light to penetrate through. The researchers believe this will help people suffering from corneal blindness.

Meanwhile, At the Regenerative Medicine Institute at NUI Galway, or REMEDI there is a clinical trial underway where stem cells are being used to tackle osteoarthritis. The idea here is to insert stem cells into, for example knee joints damaged by arthritis to facilitate the growth of new, healthy bone tissue.

The potential for knee repair is incredible. For example, Professor Fergal O’Brien,  based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and AMBER, developed a new material which repaired the severely damaged knee joints of a competitive show jumping horse called Beyonce. The horse was facing euthanasia, but after the material was used, it began competitive show jumping again.

REMEDI researchers are also working with colleagues our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, to use stem cells to overcome congenital heart defects in children. In terms of organ repair, or fixing the sky is now the limit.

Is humanity threatened?

Bionics and regenerative medicine are set to help millions of people around the world who are suffering the effects of diseased or damaged tissues or organs. We are living longer, and this technology will help us live better, no doubt.

But, there are some issues, or concerns. For example, some well known scientists in the field, such as Hugh Herr at MIT, believe that synthetic materials such as titanium and silicon will one day replace flesh and blood.

Do we want that? Will this spell the end of humanity, at our own hand?

Herr got caught in a snow blizzard while climbing a mountain at the age of 17, and lost both legs to severe frostbite. Now in his 50s, he is the co-director of MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics, where he is designing artificial legs (including his own) feet, ankles, knees and hips.

Herr’s view is that we will become more artificial, and eventually totally artificial, but that we will retain our humanity. We already have ‘augmented’ abilities, such as the ability to fly, and devices that improve our memory and ability to communicate.

Herr believes that our humanity, our ideas, our personalities, and our creativity, will become ‘embedded’ into artificial ‘designable’ bodies. We will come to see this as normal in the way, he says, and that artificial legs, or body parts will be considered part of us in the same way as biological legs are now. This is all part of the natural progression, or evolution, or humanity, Herr says.

Others disagree, and argue that as we shed our biology, we will shed our humanity, and that this technology represents an existential threat to mankind.

 

 

 

Irish ‘bench to bedside’ research improving health outcomes

Broadcast on 29-08-16 on Today with Sean O’Rourke

Medical Research Ireland
Medical research in Ireland, led by doctors and nurses, is discovering new ways of doing things that are improving health outcomes for sick people, and helping prevent illness arising in the first place (Source: http://www.ucd.ie)

The evidence shows that the best hospitals – the ones where patients have the best medical outcomes – are those that are most actively engaged in medical research.

This is the kind of practical hospital based research that saves people’s lives and it is often led by doctors or nurses seeking better ways of doing things, with no commercial motivation.

People at the frontline may have an idea of how a tried and tested way of doing things with certain patients can be improved upon. Then trials or tests are setup to test the new idea.

If the idea works, and an improvement in patient medical outcomes is proven, then changes are made in medical practice to ensure that patients fully benefit from the new knowledge.

It is called ‘bench to bedside’ research where doctors or nurses use science to test out their ideas, and if they work, then the new ways are translated from lab bench to patient bedside.

Evidence

The evidence shows, from decades of work all around the world, that hospitals are safer and generally better where the doctors, nurses and medical professionals are ‘research active’.

Medical practice doesn’t stand still, or it shouldn’t, and there are always ways of making improvements in patient care. Sometimes there is a big leap forward, with a dramatic new advance, while lots of other times, it’s a case of steady, gradual incremental gains.

The important thing is that medical professionals are in a mindset where they are constantly challenging how they do things, and never believe that existing methods can’t be improved.

The research that we are talking about here could be as simple as a better, or more, timely way of delivering a medicine, or a radical new method of performing difficult surgery.

One of the great advantages that hospital researchers have over laboratory scientists is that they can carry out tests and trials on humans, who have agreed to take part in such trials.

The individual patient can be asked to sign up for a ‘clinical trial’ to advance the state of knowledge in a particular field, such as cancer research or cardiovascular disease.

Taking part in such trials offers patients, sometimes very sick patients, the chance to help their fellow man (and woman) that come behind them, who may have the same illness.

But, as well as helping to improve the prognosis for future patients, there is plenty of evidence that an individual has a long to personally gain by taking part in a clinical trial.

The evidence suggests that people on clinical trials in hospitals have better long-term health outcomes that those that aren’t, and have earlier access to new drugs and treatments.

The people on clinical trials are watched very closely by medical staff, and they get the very best of care and attention, so that any issues that arise are picked up quickly and addressed.

There are more and more clinical trials taking place in Irish hospitals and this is a very good thing for our patients there, young or old, as the more trials, the better the health outcomes.

Ireland

All of the major Irish hospitals have significant research programmes going on at this stage, and many people will have been offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial.

It was long recognised that Ireland needed to be done more hospital based research, and in 2006 the Irish Clinical Research Infrastructure Network was setup to facilitate this.

Clinical trials, and studies are best done across a number of hospitals, at home and abroad, to increase the numbers that take part, and make the results more meaningful. The Network is now supported by the Health Research Board, the HRB, and the HSE.

There is also a lot more paediatric research taking place in Irish paediatric hospitals such as Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin, and around the country, than ever before.

There is also a paediatric research network being set up between medical researchers at Irish paediatric hospitals, and this is very good news for sick children in Ireland.

Generally speaking then, there is a lot more hospital based research taking place in Ireland than there was say, 20 years ago, but we have a long way to go to catch up with the best.

Investigator led

Many people may have the impression that a lot of research done in hospitals is being by pharmaceutical companies who want to test our new drugs and products on patients.

That kind of industry led research does happen, and, in fairness, it can occasionally lead to the development of a wonderful new drug, or to the different use of an already existing drug.

However, the kind of research that is having a more sustained impact on patients’ health is the type of research that is called ‘investigator led’ research with no commercial motivation.

The genesis of this type of research is a doctor, or nurse, physiotherapist, spotting a potentially better way of doing things in their daily work, and setting up a trial to test this out.

This requires a culture to be established in Irish hospitals, where new ideas, or ways of doing things are encouraged, and they don’t always have to come from the consultant.

The important point is that it is not the pharmaceutical industry calling the shots here, it is the medical professionals on the ground, who have no axe to grind but trying to help patients.

The one issue that we have in Ireland, however, compared to the leaders in hospital research is that not enough time is freed up for consultants and others do do research.

In the US, clinical researchers might spend half their time working with patients and the rest of the time doing research. That kind of freedom is not the norm, here in Ireland.

Projects

I visited the UCD Clinical Research Centre last week to talk to some medical researchers about their work. This is just one of many research centres attached to Irish hospitals.

Dr Alistair Nichol, a consultant anesthestist told me about a research project called TRANSFUSE. The goal here is to test out whether using new blood to transfuse patients leads to better outcomes than older blood.

Irish blood products can be 35 to 42 days old by the time they are used for a transfusion, and there is some evidence emerging that ‘using fresh blood is better.

Dr Nichol is testing this out in a study on 5,000 people that receive fresh blood against blood that is ‘standard’ (older). They have gone through 4,000 patients so far.

They plan to publish the results in about one year, and whether the fresh blood is found to be better, or not, the information that is obtained from this trial will change clinical practice.

Dr Nichol is also involved in a study that aims to get Ireland better prepared for the next major flu outbreak, as we weren’t ready for the H1N9 outbreak in 2009 he said.

The idea is to be ready to move fast when the next major flu outbreak happens here, and we are due one he said, by having everything in place to capture information on the flu.

The idea is that the doctors, nurses, and paperwork are all in place so that when people come in with a dangerous flu that UCD is ready to start a trial to capture information on it.

UCD is linked with researchers in Australia and New Zealand, in this major effort to prepare for the next flu outbreak so that information on its first appearance is properly captured.

A flu pandemic hits in waves, so that when the first wave comes through Ireland, the UCD trial will capture the information needed so that it can be tackled on the second wave.

Diabetes 

I also met Professor Carel Le Roux, a South African doctor and researcher now based in Ireland who is doing important work on obesity and diabetes.

The work of Professor Le Roux, and colleagues around the world, has found that there is a gene in some people which means they are always hungry, even soon after a meal.

This genetic link to obesity shows that obesity, and related conditions such as diabetes Type 2 are not due to some moral weakness, but due to measurable genetic differences.

This finding means that for some, it may be better for doctors to try and maintain people’s health at their current weight, as trying to get big weight reductions might not be effective.

It also means that for some, said Prof Le Roux, the best option may be to have gastric bypass surgery, which is a proven method of reducing people’s appetite in the long run.

Children

There is also important research into children’s diseases – paediatric research – happening in Ireland, in areas such as leukaemia, eczema, controlling pain and childhood diabetes.

What Irish paediatric researchers are doing is identifying the very earliest signs of diabetes, or allergies, for example, and this means treatment can also begin much earlier.

The goal in the future is to be able to identify children or infants that are at risk from a condition, or that have a condition, even in the womb and then prevent or treat it.

This preventive approach to medicine which is investigator led is far different from a world where the pharmaceutical industry wants to simply test drugs and products on already sick people.

Scientists help insurers develop ‘death clock’; loneliness is bad for health; biological computers; dinosaur extinction story updated;

Listen to discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan (21.04.16)

Loneliness
Loneliness puts people at higher risk from stroke, heart disease and many other illnesses (Credit: http://www.ucsf.edu)

Loneliness has been linked to a 30% increased risk of stroke. This is more evidence that being lonely, at whatever age, puts the person at higher risk of ill health.

Insurance companies, with the help of scientists,  are working on developing a ‘death clock’ which will better predict when their customers, with life insurance, will die.

Biological computers are on the way, made from genes, proteins and other living tissue, which may be used in future to diagnose and treat disease from inside the body.

The extinction of dinosaurs was prompted by the collision of a 10km wide piece of space rock with the Earth 66 million years ago, but, new evidence suggests that before the impact, the dinosaurs had already seen their best days.