One Pill to Rule Them All

Say goodbye to doctor’s visits and pharmacies. A revolution in healthcare may be on the horizon: It’s time to treat disease before it makes you sick. Taking just one pill could do that.

This proposed pill takes advantage of the fact that cells in our internal organs – liver, lungs, heart, and even brain – release a litany of chemicals at every moment. When someone has signs of pending disease – say, inflammation in the lungs or clogged arteries – the pill would detect how this release of chemicals changes over time. Then, it would sense and determine what combination of medications would be required to rectify the situation. Finally, it would instantly order and deliver the precise medication needed.

This technological idea already exists for diabetes. When a diabetic person’s blood sugar dips too low, an automated pump delivers insulin to combat the low blood sugar. And biocompatible, stretchable sensors are currently in clinical trials for monitoring infants’ health in the neonatal ICU.

But more sophisticated techniques are hitting the scene now. At the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Dr. Canan Dagdeviren has invented a device called a “Conformable Decoder.” It comes in pill form, unfurls in the stomach, sticks to the stomach lining, and then provides data on how the gut is doing at all hours. You can imagine the same technology being used to prevent heart attacks: biosensors embedded in the heart would detect a pending attack well before it takes place, and deliver the precise medications needed to prevent it from occurring.

It’s possible these devices could be implanted into each of our organs. We could swallow a pill that breaks apart and delivers microscopic biosensor devices to each organ. There, the biosensors would spend their time diagnosing potential problems and prescribing the precise chemical elixirs needed to fix them. No need for a pharmacy. All you have to do is go outside; a drone delivery service would bring the solution directly to you.

These biosensor technologies – and the artificial intelligence networks governing their operation – could prevent any number of diseases. When these advances come to fruition, the healthcare system would undergo vast automation. In doing so, human beings would be to live beyond the risk of disease.

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Trust-Busting Nature

Nature should not have a monopoly on the creation of new life. Monopolies at their core prevent competition that spur new ideas and innovation. Humans have advanced technologically far enough to be allowed entry into the market place of life creation and redesign. There are practical reasons for humans to assume the responsibility of engineering new life forms and molecules with novel biological functions.

With synthetic biology, we have the solution to devastating problems facing the world such as ecological destruction, fast-evolving pathogens and information overload. Furthermore, using synthetic biology we can re-imagine the design of the human body, remedy its inefficiencies and create new biological functions that are beyond the scope of natural evolution.

In the past several years, scientists have created synthetic cells whose DNA was designed on a computer and synthesized in a lab. While this was a monumental stepping stone, the potential of synthetic biology is much more exciting. We could use ambient light to power ourselves using artificial organs or prosthesis. We could rescue ecosystems and halt the sixth great extinction event with new life forms, that are designed to sustain food chains and purify their local habitats. We can design DNA less prone to mutations, so it can function as a data storage device to assist with our exponentially growing demand for information storage.

The future outlined above is achievable but will require targeted investments and creative ideas. I outline some of them below:

Proposal 1: Harness the power of machine learning to compare the genetic and proteomic profile of all sequenced organisms. Nature is highly creative, using a small library of molecular building blocks to generate the millions of species that exist. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can learn how nature engineer’s biodiversity and improve upon its biological designs.

Proposal 2: Invest in the research and development of cheap DNA synthesizing technology, that would be available on the lab bench for scientists. The current process of synthesizing unique DNA fragments requires placing an order to a third party, followed by a wait period for the product to be delivered. This is inefficient as it narrows the pace and scope of research.

Proposal 3: Facilitate the development of technology that automates biology labs. Too much human labor in labs is spent on mundane tasks such as preparing cell cultures, maintaining animal stocks and pipetting. Widespread automation of such tasks will allow scientists to use their time and expertise on creative problem solving, rather than monotonous work that is suited for robots.

Proposal 4: Think big and re-imagine the design of DNA. Scientists have recently expanded the vocabulary of the genetic code and created new types of proteins from it. We should increase investment in research that examines how we can expand the genetic vocabulary to create new biological molecules with unique functions.

A Vision for Infrastructure Investment

What is infrastructure?  Possible answer: The basic capabilities and support necessary for some form of existence…..

This could mean food, clothes (particularly when its cold), protection from threats.  Maybe that is the basic level.

Once you have all that you tend to think of other stuff, like transportation, power, housing, and civil justice as infrastructure.

Once you have achieved a modern, western-world level of existence where such things are all provided, you start to consider healthcare, living wage or job, full education, and internet connectivity as infrastructure.

Somewhere in the future we might consider civilization on the planets, travel to and from, and genetic engineering for all as infrastructure.

What does it mean in 2018, with a booming economy, and a political class willing to spend vast resources on it?

I suggest that it means all of the above.

We need to spend ‘infrastructure’ money to make sure all the basic stuff (food, housing, jobs) are there for all.  Not the food, housing, and jobs of the past- but the food we know to be better today, the fully tech-enabled housing of today, and the jobs of tomorrow.

We will also need to make sure that the transportation system, the power grid, and the civil justice system are redesigned for today and tomorrow.  Let us not just rebuild the old systems.  Let us build the new ones, designed for our time and the future.

Let us design the healthcare system of the future, not the waste time on the fixes needed in the present one.  Let us invest in the bioengineering and technology of tomorrow, not just rebuild the inadequate hospitals of today.

Science and Technology have taken humankind from a lifespan of 35 years to more than 80 today.  S&T has provided and defined what we call infrastructure, making life better every day.

When we say it is time to invest in Infrastructure, we are really saying it is time to invest in the science and technology that will become tomorrow’s infrastructure, and today’s.

Michael Swetnam is the CEO & Chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. 

Gaming for the Greater Good: Using Video Games to Advance Science

By Damien O’Connell

Want to revolutionize science research and education in this country? Use video games.

Imagine combining highly-engaging (and highly addictive) games in the vein of Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Call of Duty with solving science’s hardest problems and increasing science literacy. The benefits would be enormous and wide-ranging. On one level, it could usher in medical breakthroughs, new technologies, and even applications for defense. On another, with a citizenry more conversant in science, it could help solve our nagging STEM problem, moving us from the middle of the pack internationally to the front, where we ought to be.

America, according to the head of the Electronic Software Association, is a nation of gamers. 67% of American households (that’s over 84,000,000 households) own at least one device used for video gaming. Beyond this, the video gaming industry generates money – lots of it. In 2016, the video game industry contributed $11.7 billion to the US GDP. This fueled the direct employment of 65,678 Americans and $30.4 billion in consumer spending. Combining games and science might not just be good for knowledge, technology, and education; it might be highly profitable.

So, what might a game that combines science with the pull and replayability of Clash of Clans look like? We’ll have to leave that to the designers and scientists, but a good start might be Mozak. Developed together by Washington University’s Center for Game Science and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Mozak tasks players with tracing the intricate structure of actual animal and human neurons – in a nutshell, it’s crowdsourced neuroscience. The goal of the game includes reconstructing a full 3-D model of a human brain. Imagine similar games for curing cancer, getting astronauts to Mars, or tackling existential threats.

Mozak shows that we can harness video games in incredibly powerful ways. So, to that end, government should launch something like a ‘Gaming for the Greater Good’ Initiative. This would provide financial incentives for industry leading-gaming companies (like Activision, Electronic Arts, and Rovio Entertainment) universities, and research institutes to collaborate on developing highly-engaging, socially popular, addictive games that further science and science education.

Video games may hold the key to our next big scientific breakthrough. They can also play an immeasurably important role in teaching our citizens about the value of science and the role it should play in both our public and private lives. So, grab your controllers, everyone. It’s time to game.

Take it to the Moon: Repurposing Space Junk

By Damien O’Connell

750,000. That’s the amount of space junk larger than 1 cm orbiting our planet. On average, these objects travel at 40,000 kilometers per hour, and when they hit other objects, like satellites, the result’s comparable to a grenade going off.

Outer space refuse has already given us some headaches. The Soviet Union’s Mir Space Station endured several impacts. In 1996 and 2009, debris destroyed active satellites. In 2013, space junk hit a Russian satellite, changing its spin rate and orbit. And just last year, suspected space debris struck the Copernicus Sentinel – 1A Satellite, but luckily caused only little damage.

So far, we’ve been lucky, but that luck may soon run out. As space junks continues to accumulate, we could face the Kessler Syndrome, a situation where space junk becomes so numerous as to destroy all active satellites. As of June 2016, 1,419 satellites currently orbit earth. What if these disappeared? The world would take a very, very hard hit, both in lives and treasure. Beyond this, debris could potentially destroy the International Space Station and even make it impossible for space vehicles to enter or exit the atmosphere.

We’ve got to act. We could try to destroy space junk, sure, but that may very well just create more, leading us, again, to a Kessler Syndrome scenario. So, here’s another thought: Why don’t we repurpose it?

Here’s one idea: Collect the stuff and use it as raw materials to build a colony on the moon. Just last year, leading scientists, to include prominent members of NASA, produced a special edition of New Space journal where they laid out ideas and plans for colonizing the moon. The ultimate purpose for such a colony would be to support missions to Mars. And all that space junk orbiting us? We could use it to build the foundations of this future lunar home.

So, how do we get there? For starters, the government should fund research into finding ways to collect and move space debris. Cooperation with industry likely holds the key to success here. Government incentives could possibly even lead to an entire space debris reclamation sector. Right now, there’s little money in collecting space junk, but with the Moon colony mission (and Mars) on the minds of many leading scientists at NASA, this could change with a few nudges from the government.

Let the race for the first galactic garbage man begin.

Print an organ, save a life

By Andrew Peterson

U.S. organ donation systems have a supply and demand problem. The number of individuals in need of life-saving organs outstrips supply. The National Kidney Foundation reports that, as of November 2016, over 120,000 individuals are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant in the U.S.. Of these individuals, 100,791 require kidney transplants with a median wait time of 3.6 years. Many die before receiving a transplant. It is estimated that 13 individuals die every day waiting for a kidney.

There are several proposed solutions to this problem. Some have argued that the U.S. should adopt a mandatory deceased donation policy. This would resolve supply shortages and curb the illegal practice of organ trafficking. Another option is a regulated organ market. This approach would incentivize the exchange of human body parts between parties who are not be motivated by altruism.

These solutions are ethically messy, and policy makers might be reluctant to attach their names to these ideas. But what if we could avoid the ethical mess by leveraging technology?

What if we could print an organ?

We are in the midst of a 3-D printing revolution, and the prospect of printing organs is not mere science fiction. Reports in Nature and the Economist highlight that 3-D printing is already used for artificial joints, bone grafts, and cartilage structures. The U.S. market for printed body parts is greater than $500 million, and annual growth is increasing exponentially. Printing organs is favorable as compared to other methods, such as xenotransplantation: printed organs can be customized, can be printed on demand, have no viability window, and are not susceptible to zoonotic disease.

Despite this potential benefit, printing whole organs still faces technical obstacles. This is where policy makers have an opportunity to act. Below we highlight two recommendations that could position the U.S. as a medical technology leader in the 3-D printing revolution, and could ultimately save lives.

Recommendation 1: Incentivize collaborations between scientists and industry

The growth of the 3-D printing industry has already outpaced market forecasts. Economist project the industry will be worth $20 Billion by 2020. This pace of growth can be leveraged toward increased medical technology research by incentivizing relationships between science and industry. Federal research dollars could be used for match making in research project grants, or broad investment in University infrastructures that promote collaboration. The U.S. is already leading 3-D printing innovation. This model could put the U.S. in a position to make one of the most profound medical technology breakthroughs of the 21st century.

Recommendation 2: Promote discussion of ethical issues associated with printed body parts

New technologies bring new ethical questions. Printed body parts are no exception. Should we maximize equitable access of printed organs—or 3-D printing units? Should insurance companies pay for printed organs as they do for prosthetic technologies? And should printed organs be enhanced beyond normal function? These questions require discussion between industry leaders, scientists, and science and technology policy experts. Federal dollars can promote these discussions by integrating ethical analyses into research projects. The U.S. Human Genome Project and BRAIN Initiative use this incentive model. Federal dollars that support the 3-D printing revolution can do the same.     

What’s Wrong with National Security S&T?

What’s Wrong with National Security S&T?

Mike Swetnam

I have an appointment with the Director of IARPA (the Intelligence Community version of DARPA) tomorrow. I tried to arrange for one of my assistants to join me but was told that they need 3 days to process clearance for anyone visiting them.

Really?

I can and have seen the President on very short notice. I have often visited the Director of Central Intelligence within an hour of asking. But visiting IARPA requires 3 days?

I know that it only takes about 3 minutes to look up one’s government clearance status on the the IC’s computers. Why three days to clear a visit?

I can apply for and get a house mortgage approved on-line in about an hour. I can get a car loan in about 15 minutes. I went to the dentist last week. He x-rayed my bad tooth, diagnosed it, pulled it, and put in a post for a new tooth in about an hour.

Three days to clear someone to visit a small IC agency?

Science and Technology is moving at break-neck speed. New ideas go from laboratory demos to products in hours. Pokemon Go topped a billion dollars revenue in less than three days after its release!

So, ask me again, “What’s wrong with US Government S&T or US government research?”

I can answer that question in about 3 milli-seconds.