Category Archives: public health

Planting Electronics in Brains

 An implantable brain device that literally melts away at a pre-determined rate minimizes injury to tissue normally associated with standard electrode implantation, according to research led by a team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. …Thin, flexible neural electrode arrays with fully bioresorbable construction based on patterned silicon nanomembranes (Si NMs) as the conducting component.

“Dissolvable silicon electronics offer an unprecedented opportunity to implant advanced monitoring systems that eliminate the risks, cost, and discomfort associated with surgery to extract current devices used for post-operative monitoring,” said senior co-author Brian Litt, MD,….“This study tested the usefulness of temporary, dissolvable monitoring systems capable of providing continuous streams of data for guiding medical care over predetermined periods of time — from days to months — before dissolving.”

The device is made of layers of silicon and molybdenum that can measure physiological characteristics and dissolve at a known rate, as determined by its thickness. For example, the team used the device to record brain waves in rats under anesthesia, as well as voltage fluctuations between neurons (EEGs), and induced epileptic spikes in intact live tissue. A separate experiment demonstrated a complex, multiplexed array made from these materials that could map rat-whisker sensing capabilities at high resolution.

These electrophysiological signals were recorded from devices placed at the surface of the brain cortex (the outer layer of tissue) and the inner space between the scalp and skull. Chronic measurements were made over a 30-day period, while acute experiments demonstrated device operations over three to four hours.

The type of neurophysiologic features measured by the new device are commonly used for diagnosing and treating such disorders as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression, chronic pain, and conditions of the peripheral nervous system. “….

This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center,  and others.

See Next-Gen Electrodes: Proof-of-Concept Animal Study Shows that Flexible, Dissolvable Silicon Electronic Device Holds Promise for Brain Monitoring , Press Release, May 5, 2016

See also Nature Materials

The US Military and the Peripheral Nervous System

How to Stop the Chemical Wars of the Future

Stark illustrations of the dangers from chemical weapons can be seen in attacks using toxic industrial chemicals and sarin against civilians and combatants in Syria and toxic industrial chemicals in Iraq, as well as more targeted assassination operations in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, employing VX and novichok nerve agents, respectively. . With the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convening a Review Conference to address such issues beginning 21 November 2018, we highlight important scientific aspects .

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty in effect since 1997 that proscribes the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons “under any circumstances” and requires their destruction within a specified time period. The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for a range of industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes, including law enforcement, as long as the “types and quantities” of chemicals employed are “consistent with such purposes.” …The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the CWC, comprises the 193 State Parties and a Technical Secretariat that provides technical assistance to States, routinely inspects relevant State and commercial industrial facilities, and monitors activities to ensure compliance. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for overseeing and facilitating the verified destruction of most of the declared chemical weapons stocks produced in the last century—to date totaling more than 96% (69,750 metric tons) of the declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

Although the CWC includes three schedules of toxic chemicals for the application of verification measures, the scope of the CWC is not constrained to these schedules but by its General Purpose Criterion (GPC), which prohibits misuse of toxic chemicals based on intent rather than on this limited list of chemicals.  [This GPC makes it possible to widen the authority of the OPCW. More, specifically issues to consider include]:

1) Riot control agents (RCAs). The CWC defines RCAs—such as tear gas and pepper spray—as “any chemical not listed” in one of its three schedules that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”…However, a recurring concern documented by the medical community and human rights monitors has been the widespread misuse of RCAs by police and security forces in excessive quantities, including in hospitals, prisons, homes, and automobiles, where targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from toxic properties of chemicals or from asphyxiation… [It is important to clarify] the nature and scope of “law enforcement” activities and develop guidance as to “types and quantities” of RCAs that can legitimately be used in such circumstances

2) Delivery systems… capable of delivering far greater amounts of RCAs (and potentially other toxic chemicals) over wider areas or more extended distances than current standard law enforcement delivery mechanisms, such as handheld sprays, grenades, and single launched projectiles. Such new systems include large-capacity spraying devices, automatic grenade launchers, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber RCA projectiles, and unmanned ground or aerial vehicles capable of carrying spraying devices or projectile launchers. ..

3) Incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapons. Although the CWC permits use of appropriate types and quantities of RCAs for law enforcement, certain countries have conducted research into weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, so-called ICAs. Not separately defined under the CWC, ICAs can be considered as a range of toxic chemicals—only one of which [3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) and two of its immediate precursors] is currently scheduled—including anesthetics and other pharmaceutical chemicals that are purportedly intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems, notably the central nervous system (CNS), to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. Such CNS-acting chemicals can produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis…An aerosolized mixture of two anesthetics—carfentanil and remifentanil—employed by Russian security forces to end the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 caused the deaths of 125 of the 900 hostages

Other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) are chemical plants that do not currently produce, but are capable of manufacturing, chemical warfare agents or precursors. At present, a small fraction of declared OCPFs are selected for verification by the OPCW; the Review Conference should consider authorizing a substantial increase in OCPF inspections per year. …Biological and biologically mediated processes for production of discrete organic chemicals  Some products and processes used by the biomanufacturing industry are as relevant to the CWC as those used by other OCPF facilities  The OPCW should  build on the considerable progress made toward developing a network of designated laboratories for the analysis of biomedical and biological samples. Advances in other fields could also facilitate more effective evidence collection, for example, exploring the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to support reconnaissance, detection, and chain of custody.

Excerpts from  Michael Crowley at al., Preventing Chemical Weapons as Sciences Converge, Science, Nov. 16, 2018

Eradicate Mosquitoes Forever: Gene Drives

The mosquitoes are being fitted with a piece of dna called a gene drive. Unlike the genes introduced into run-of-the-mill genetically modified organisms, gene drives do not just sit still once inserted into a chromosome. They actively spread themselves, thereby reaching more and more of the population with each generation. If their effect is damaging, they could in principle wipe out whole species.. If gene drives were to condemn to a similar fate the mosquitoes that spread malaria, a second of humankind’s great scourges might be consigned to history.

Gene drives can in principle be used against any creatures which reproduce sexually with short generations and aren’t too rooted to a single spot. The insects that spread leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, dengue fever, chikungunya, trypanosomiasis and Zika could all be potential targets. So could creatures which harm only humankind’s dominion, not people themselves. Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a gene-drive system for Drosophila suzukii, an Asian fruitfly which, as an invasive species, damages berry and fruit crops in America and Europe. Island Conservation, an international environmental ngo, thinks gene drives could offer a humane and effective way of reversing the damage done by invasive species such as rats and stoats to native ecosystems in New Zealand and Hawaii.

Such critics fear that the laudable aim of vastly reducing deaths from malaria—which the World Health Organisation puts at 445,000 a year, most of them children—will open the door to the use of gene drives for far less clear-cut benefits in ways that will entrench some interests, such as those of industrial farmers, at the expense of others. They also point to possible military applications: gene drives could in principle make creatures that used not to spread disease more dangerous… The ability to remove species by fiat—in effect, to get them to remove themselves—is, like the prospect of making new species from scratch, a power that goes beyond the past ambit of humankind.

Gene drives based on crispr-Cas9 could easily be engineered to target specific bits of the chromosome and insert themselves seamlessly into the gap, thus ensuring that every gamete gets a copy . By 2016, gene drives had been created in yeast, fruitflies and two species of mosquito. In work published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in September, Andrea Crisanti, Mr Burt and colleagues at Imperial showed that one of their gene drives could drive a small, caged population of the mosquito Anopheles gambiae to extinction—the first time a gene drive had shown itself capable of doing this. The next step is to try this in a larger caged population.

There are also worries about how gene drives might be used to create a weapon. …The need to find ways to guard against such attacks is one of the reasons that the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (darpa) gives for its work on gene drives. Renee Wegrzyn, programme manager for darpa’s “Safe Genes” project, says the work is to prevent “technological surprise”, whether in the form of an unintended consequence or nefarious use. One of the academic teams she funds has made progress in developing anti-crispr enzyme systems that one day might be able to inhibit a drive’s operation.

Oversight needs not just to bring together a range of government agencies; it requires co-operation between governments, too. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which entered into force under the un Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) in 2003, provides controls on the transfer of genetically modified organisms. But how it applies to gene drives is unclear—and besides, America has never ratified the convention. An attempt to ban gene-drive research through the cbd, which was backed by the etc Group and other ngos, failed at the convention’s biennial meeting in Cancún in 2016…Like the reintroduction of vanished species advocated by the rewilding movement, gene-drive technology will provide new arenas for the fight between those who wish to defend nature and those who wish to tame it.

Excertps from Gene Drives: Extinction on Demand, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018, at 24

Meddling with Nature: Is it Right? Is it Fair?

Many envisioned environmental applications of newly developed gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR might provide profound benefits for ecosystems and society. But depending on the type and scale of the edit, gene-edited organisms intentionally released into the environment could also deliver off-target mutations, evolutionary resistance, ecological disturbance, and extinctions. Hence, there are ongoing conversations about the responsible application of CRISPR, especially relative to the limitations of current global governance structures to safeguard its use,   Largely missing from these conversations is attention to local communities in decision-making. Most policy discussions are instead occurring at the national or international level even though local communities will be the first to feel the context-dependent impacts of any release. ..

CRISPR gene editing and other related genetic technologies are groundbreaking in their ability to precisely and inexpensively alter the genome of any species. CRISPR-based gene drives hold particular import because they are designed to rapidly spread genetic changes—including detrimental traits such as infertility—through populations of sexually reproducing organisms, to potentially reach every member of a species. Villages in Burkina Faso are weighing the release of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes that could suppress malaria. Nantucket Island residents in the United States are considering the release of genetically engineered white-footed mice to deplete Lyme disease reservoirs. New Zealand communities are discussing the possibility of using genetic methods to eliminate exotic predators.

But what if a gene drive designed to suppress an invasive species escaped its release site and spread to a native population? Or if a coral species gene edited to better adapt to environmental stressors dominated reef ecosystems at the expense of a diversity of naturally evolving coral species and the fish that depend on them ? The gravity of these potential outcomes begs the question: Should humans even be meddling with the DNA of wild organisms? The absence of generally agreed on answers can be used to support calls for moratoria on developing and releasing genetically altered organisms, especially those with gene drives (6).

However, the promising benefits of environmental gene editing cannot be dismissed. Gene drives may provide a long-sought-after tool to control vectors of infectious disease and save millions of human lives. Projects to conserve ecosystems or promote species resilience are often intended to repair human-inflicted environmental damage. Put simply, either using this technology irresponsibly or not using it at all could prove damaging to humans, our welfare, and our planet.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has enlisted an expert technical panel to, in part, update its Cartagena Protocol (of which the United States is not a party) that oversees transboundary transport of living modified organisms to accommodate gene drive–bearing organisms. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also developing policy to address the release of gene-edited organisms. Although the CBD and the IUCN offer fora to engage diverse public feedback, a role largely fulfilled by civil society groups, none of these agencies currently use the broad and open deliberative process we advocate….

Different societal views about the human relationship to nature will therefore shape decision-making. Local community knowledge and perspectives must therefore be engaged to address these context-dependent, value-based considerations.  A special emphasis on local communities is also a matter of justice because the first and most closely affected individuals deserve a strong voice in the decision-making process…Compounding this challenge is that these decisions cannot be made in isolation. Organisms released into local environments may cross regional and even international borders. Hence, respect for and consideration of local knowledge and value systems are necessary, but insufficient, to anticipate the potentially ramifying global implications of environmental release of gene-edited organisms. What is needed is an approach that places great weight on local perspectives within a larger global vision…

The needs of ecosystems could also be given voice to inform deliberative outcomes through custodial human proxies. Inspired by legislative precedent set by New Zealand, in which the Whanganui River was granted legal “personhood,” human representatives, nominated by both an international body like the IUCN and the local community, would be responsible for upholding the health and interests of the ecosystems in question. Proposed gene-editing strategies would be placed in the larger context of alternative approaches to address the public health or environmental issue in question…d

An online registry for all projects intending to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment must be created. Currently, no central database exists for environmental gene-editing applications or for decision-making outcomes associated with their deployment, and this potentially puts the global community at risk…A global coordination task force would be charged with coordinating multiple communities, nations, and regions to ensure successful deliberative outcomes. As a hypothetical example, genetic strategies to eliminate invasive possums from New Zealand must include representatives from Australia, the country likely to be affected should animals be transported outside the intended range. Similarly, the African Union is currently deliberating appropriate governance of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes to combat malaria on a regional scale. 

Excerpts from Natalie Kofl et al.,  Editing nature: Local roots of global governance, Science Magazine, Nov. 2, 2018

Crabs in Radioactive Seas: Kara Sea

The Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s dumped several hundred containers with solid radioactive waste in the Blagopoluchie Bay in Novaya Zemlya. Back then, these waters were covered with ice overwhelming parts of the year.  Today, that is quickly changing. The bay located in the northern part of the Russian Arctic archipelago is now ice-free increasing parts of the year. With the retreating ice follow new species.

Researchers from the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have comprehensively studied the eco system of the bay for several years. Among their key findings is a quickly growing number of snow crabs. In this year’s research expedition to the remote waters, the researchers were overwhelmed by the numbers. According to the institute, the crab invasion can be described «as avalanche».

The number of crabs in the area is now estimated to almost 14,000 per hectare, the institute informs. With the help of underwater photo and video footage, the researchers have studied how the crab expansion is leading to a other reduction in other marine life on the sea bottom.    A further spread in the other parts of the Kara Sea is imminent, and the Russian Fisheries Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) believe that the Kara Sea will ultimately become an area with commercial crab fishing.

But Kara seas is a major nuclear waste dump…No major leakage from the radioactive materials have so far been registered.  Soviet authorities are believed to have dumped about 17,000 containers with solid radioactive wastes in Arctic waters and primarily in the Kara Sea. More than 900 containers are located on the bottom of the Blagopoluchie Bay. Also a number of reactor compartments were dumped, as well as three nuclear subs and other nuclear materials.

Exceprts from Atle Staalesen, Arctic crab invasion comes to nuclear waste graveyard, the Barents Observer, Nov. 26, 2018

Future of Green Life Depends on a Toilet

Innovator Cranfield University, U.K.: Putting down the toilet lid activates a dry flush. The motion turns a set of gears that drop feces and urine into a pan, where they are separated and either combusted into ash that can be thrown away or filtered into clean water that could be used to water plants, for instance, though not drinking. It was one of the few completely standalone toilets at the expo, able to function without links to water, sewer or electric lines.

The Innovator: Helbling Group, Switzerland: Helbling’s self-contained toilet system
Similar to other models, this toilet is a mostly self-contained system that transforms waste into clean water and a form of charcoal. But its makers, who were contracted by the Gates Foundation to develop this model, also had modern design in mind: A sleek, black-and-white prototype includes a touchpad for the flush and a container that can be detached to dump out excess water. While it doesn’t have to connect to water or sewer lines, one limit is that the model still needs electricity from an outside source

Sedron Technologies makes the Janicki Omni Processor, a small-scale waste-treatment plant that can filter wet fecal matter so thoroughly that the resulting water is not only free of bacteria and viruses but also safe for drinking. At its highest capacity the plant can manage waste for up to 500,000 people, the same range as two other plants featured at the expo. A trial has been running in Dakar, Senegal, over the past three years to identify and fix technical problems.

Excerpts  from Flush With Ideas: Bill Gates Pursues the Toilet of the Future, WSJ, Nov. 9, 2018


The 500 Cases of Marine Pollution

An international law enforcement operation against maritime pollution has revealed hundreds of violations and exposed serious cases of contamination worldwide.  Codenamed 30 Days at Sea, the month-long (1-31 October) operation saw some 276 law enforcement and environmental agencies across 58 countries detect more than 500 offences, including illegal discharges of oil and garbage from vessels, shipbreaking, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to the sea.  More than 5200 inspections have resulted in at least 185 investigations, with arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

“Criminals believe marine pollution is a low-risk crime with no real victims.  This is a mistake and one which INTERPOL and our partners are addressing as demonstrated by this operation,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.  Cases of serious contamination included the dumping of animal farm waste in Philippine coastal waters where local communities collect shellfish and children play.  In Germany, a vessel discharged 600 litres of palm oil into the sea. Ghana uncovered gallons of waste oil in large bottles thought to be illegally dumped at sea.  Authorities prevented an environmental disaster in Albania by securing waters around a sinking vessel containing some 500 litres of oil. Similarly, the pollution threat resulting from the collision of two ships in French waters was contained thanks to preventive action during the operation.

Innovative technologies permitted authorities to detect offences, including the use of satellite images (in Argentina and Sweden), aerial surveillance (Canada and Italy), drones (Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan) and night vision cameras.

Excerpt from Marine pollution crime: first global multi-agency operation, Interpol Press Release, Nov. 13, 2018