Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

More Age of Miracles

March 22, 2013 1 comment

Not only do we have live musical performances from space, now gene therapy is achieving dramatic cures for some patients with leukemia.  From Fierce Biotech:

Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, the investigators say they were able to take T cells from late-stage leukemia patients and modify them with genetic material, reengineering the immune cells to track down and kill B cells. A disabled viral vector was used to inject the genetic material to recognize the CD19 protein expressed on the surface of B cells.

Anywhere from 5 months to two years after the gene therapy, three of the 5 patients in the study are still alive. Two of the patients died–one from a blood clot–while the other relapsed. One of the sickest patients was free of the leukemia 8 days after he was treated, surprising everyone involved.

NYTimes gives a nice write-up here:
Cell Therapy Shows Promise for Acute Type of Leukemia

Hopefully we will surmount the nascent ethical questions around this technology and arrive somewhere where more lives, like that of the amazing instance above, can be saved.

Categories: Science

Seeds of Innovation?

February 17, 2013 3 comments

Monsanto timeline

The New York Times reports on a suit coming to the US Supreme Court.  The suit is brought by Monsanto against 75 year old Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman.  The matter at hand is Monsanto’s “Round-up ready” soybean seeds.  Roundup-ready is a gene, developed by Monsanto, that they insert into various plant genomes.  It confers immunity against the herbicide Roundup – after planting these seeds, farmers can douse their fields with Roundup, which kills all weeds but leaves the immune crops alone.

Farmer Bowman is a Monsanto customer and has been using Roundup-ready soybean seeds for a number of years.  What offense does Monsanto allege?  That Bowman did not sell or use all of his grown crop, but instead – as farmers have done since agriculture was invented – held back some of his crop to plant next year.  This, Monsanto alleges, is illegal “copying” of their patented organism.  The bottom-line is Monsanto wants farmers to buy seeds every year, instead of buying them once and “growing their own”, as it were.

I am not against genetically engineered foods (GEF), per se.  Like any technology GEF should be judged on its real merits and risks.  As you can read here, there’s significant evidence that Roundup-ready crops are actually inferior products.  Also as it turns out weeds are developing resistance to Roundup, so who knows how long the technology will remain even superficially useful.

The pros/cons of GEF are not what interested me here, it is more the what this case says about the state of IP law.  In their brief, Monsanto alleges:

Without reasonable license restrictions prohibiting the replanting of second- and later-generation soybeans, Monsanto’s ability to protect its patented technology would effectively be lost as soon as the first generation of the product was introduced into the market.

The Monsanto license does in fact prohibit any use of 2nd-generation seeds other than selling “… the harvested crop through customary distribution channels as a commodity, or for use as animal feed.”

SCOTUS will in part rule on whether such a license is “reasonable” and should be enforced.  There’s also a lot to be considered in the method of these “inventions”.  While the gene-insertion method does seem like an actual invention to me, the way the actual Roundup-ready gene was created was more like observation – expose plants to the herbicide and examine the genes of those that are resistant.  Observations, no matter how arduous or costly, cannot be patented.

Without going through the twists and turns of IP law on this, my thinking comes down on the side of Farmer Bowman.  Yes, Monsanto created a better seed.  They should charge more for it and let the marketplace decide on its merits.  But it is still a seed.  I don’t see that Monsanto’s activities warrant any change in the 1,000s of years-old practices of agriculture and the normal use of seeds.

I find it troubling that the Business Software Alliance has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case.  In it they contend:

A legal rule eliminating patent protection for “self-replicating” seeds that had the same result with respect to temporary copies of software programs would facilitate software piracy on a broad scale.

The BSA of course is concerned about licensing and doesn’t want anything to interfere with current software industry practices, where you don’t actually buy software, you license it.  I went through the brief – it is quite vague, and calls for “balance” as if they were Jedi knights and not corporate executives.  Essentially the BSA hates copies of software and resale of software. Now, the chances of Bowman vs. Monsanto being relevant to software are low.  Soybeans are self-replicating, and right now the only meaningful category of self-replicating software is the computer virus  I guess the BSA wants to keep the door open for Microsoft to create a useful virus and to charge everyone who ever gets infected.

Alas, in all this customers are rarely mentioned.  Everything is about protecting industries – farmers, who exert massive effort and resources growing those 2nd generation contraband soybeans, are never mentioned.  Nor are software users, who sadly often spend more time working on their software than the software spends working for them.

On the plant front seems to me there’s a lot of innovation happening with heirloom seeds – breeds that have been re-discovered, either on farms or in the wild.  Finding, cataloging, assessing, distributing – all that is innovative and, frankly, looks pretty tasty too.

Gone with the [Solar] Wind

February 17, 2012 Comments off

The world is experiencing spectacular displays of aurora borealis, stretching to countries which rarely experience them, like the U.K., and, in the photo to the right, the American Midwest.  These graceful and mysterious lights inspired transcendentalist poet Christopher Pearse Cranch to write:

Who can name thy wondrous essence,
Thou electric phosphorescence?
Lonely apparition fire!
Seeker of the starry choir!
Restless roamer of the sky,
Who hath won thy mystery?
Mortal science hath not ran
With thee through the Empyrean,
Where the constellations cluster
Flower-like on thy branching lustre.

Cranch might not have been so enraptured had he known the aurora borealis is caused by solar flares.  The latest IEEE Spectrum has an article on the damaging effects of solar flares, and friends, seeking starry choirs is the least mischief these electric phosphorescences intend.  But as overwrought as he was, Cranch did get the electric part right.  Solar flares occur when the Sun ejects massive amounts of material – on the order of a billion tons – in the form of charged particles, outwards with great force.  These particles – electrons and protons – do 2 things: First, the particles beat back the shielding magnetic field of the Earth and create charged plasma in the upper atmosphere, called an electrojet.  Current in the electrojet can exceed millions of amperes; these high-up currents can induce smaller, damaging currents at ground level.

Second, the impact on the magnetosphere causes waves in the Earth’s magnetic field.  These waves are powerful enough to create GICs – geomagnetically induced currents – just as spinning a magnet inside a copper coil induces a current.  GICs can be 100s of amps per incident.

Most of the time, these two effects are small, limited only to Cranch’s lonely apparition-type fires.  But sometimes, these flares are really big.  In 1989 all of Quebec was blacked-out in 30 seconds; its grid experienced 15 simultaneous failures and that instantly cascaded into province-wide failure.  Bad as that storm was, there are recorded events of storms even bigger, including an 1921 storm that blanketed all of North America and most of the Pacific, and an 1859 storm that was much larger still.  2012-2013 will see the solar max, a period of increased sunspot activity, and also of increased solar flares.

The entire world is considerably more electrified today than even in 1989, and very much more than in 1921.  That means we are all the more vulnerable.  Nuclear power plants are exceptionally vulnerable because of the very large number of transformers and lines that service a nuclear facility.  An 1989 or greater size storm that hits the US East Coast could have devastating effects.

The Spectrum sounds a hopeful note, however: Transformers can be protected from GICs with new, relatively inexpensive technology.  Will we do it, though?  I have to say, unlikely – it is more in our social nature today to risk billions or even trillions in damage, rather than spend millions in prevention.

Cranch went on to write:

Is not human fantasy,
Wild Aurora, likest thee,
Blossoming in nightly dreams,
Like thy shifting meteor-gleams?

Here’s hoping that the auroras of this year and the next bring us no more than fantastic dreams.

Categories: Science