Yearly Archives: 2010

In Uncle Sam, You’ve Got a Friend… Who Wants Everybody’s DNA

In the latest WikiLeaks data dump, around a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables were published online. “Cablegate,” as it is being called, has revealed some rather startling information. Among the tech-relevant secrets, the State Department tasked agents to collect DNA and other biometric information on foreigners of interest.

Specifically, U.S. officials were told that in addition to collecting “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers,” they should also snap up “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and Iris scans.” This directive makes the recent TSA scandal over airport full body scanners seem like child’s play.

Wired joked that this would explain to foreign leaders why the “chief of mission seemed a bit too friendly at the last embassy party.”

Jokes aside, access to DNA information is potentially one of the most important privacy issues of the future.

Read more here.

Bay Area politicians aging well

Nancy Pelosi is 70 years old and aiming to run as minority leader despite the huge losses the Dems suffered under her majority leadership. Even if you disagree with her politics, you can’t help but notice that she looks pretty good for someone in their 7th decade. And she’s not alone. Jerry Brown, at 72 years was recently re-elected as governor of California, a post he held nearly three decades ago! In this photo, he’s looking tanned and healthy, and as the SF Chronicle notes, “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was starring in “Conan the Barbarian” when Brown was finishing up his second term in 1982.” Interestingly, Brown, “whose election to the statehouse job in 1974 made him one of the youngest governors in state history – will now be the nation’s oldest governor.”

At 70 and 72 years, these Bay Area politicians are doing tough jobs that require a ton of energy and spin power. It’s a testament to human progress that they can go about their business in great health.

Singularity University expands into Brazil

The SU Blog says: “From its founding, a goal of Singularity University has been to spread its wealth of information beyond the gates of its headquarters at NASA Ames Research Park. Now, just over a year since kicking off its first program with GSP-09, SU is launching its first international program – in Brazil!”

I’m proud to be on the board of Trustees. Here’s Chairman Peter Diamandis discussing the move in English with Portuguese subtitles:

Another person has fingertip regeneration therapy

This is a fascinating story about a woman named Deepa Kulkarni who accidentally cut off the top of her pinky finger. After being told by regular doctors that they have to cut even more of it to make her better (yikes!), she finds a doctor who can regrow it instead. Persistence certainly paid off in this case. A great outcome and an example of where science and medicine are moving.

Cloud Computing Calms Open Source Warfare

Here’s my most recent column:

Cloud computing, technology delivered over the Internet, has become a hot area in the last few years. The technology marketplace moves at breakneck speeds, but it is still shocking when innovation almost completely wipes out squabbles like those over open source (OS) vs. proprietary software.

“In a cloud world, source code is almost irrelevant,” Matt Asay recently wrote at GigaOm.
Tim O’Reilly was among the first to point this out in 2008, when he said that “Architecture trumps licensing any time.”

This statement rings true to most experts following this space, but for those who remember the heated battles between proprietary software providers and the open source community, the new environment seems almost surreal.

There was a time, for example, when Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer called Linux a “cancer.” Now the company is actively engaging the open source community in various ways, such as offering OS applications on its cloud, the Windows Azure platform, and publicizing that 350,000 OS applications run on Windows.


Read more here.

Regulators Take Aim at Genomics

Here’s the first part of my column on the recent Congressional investigation into the genomcs industry:

The genomics industry, which provides reports about disease risk, ancestry, and drug reactions based on one’s DNA, came under fire last week as a Congressional Committee held hearings and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an unscientific “study” of the sector.

According to undercover discussions with genomics firms, the GAO reports that “fictitious consumers received test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use.” The agency admits, however, that it “did not conduct a scientific study but instead documented observations that could be made by any consumer.”

The GAO’s “sting” operation on this nascent field looks more like a witch hunt, given that it lumped in legitimate testing companies with others that are not.

In one instance, a company representative said that it would be OK to send in someone else’s saliva to be tested. As the GAO points out, that practice is already restricted in 33 states, so this seems more like a matter of enforcement.

The GAO’s report is a tricky way of attempting to perturb the public about genetic testing, but it also raises a key question: Why haven’t government regulators disciplined the companies that are clearly breaking the already-established rules?

The GAO also blasts the genomics industry for providing different results for the same DNA, but when dealing with something as complicated as the human body, there often are valid scientific reasons for variation. As 23andMe points out on its blog, testing is not yet standardized, and some companies “employ different statistical models for making risk estimates; they establish different criteria for the inclusion of associations in their reports; and new associations are being discovered at a faster rate than companies’ development cycles.”


Read more here:

Health care worker of the future in developing countries

This is an amazing article about (70 year old!) Harvard Professor George Whitesides. He’s working to create cheap diagnostics for developing countries and he tells the reporter this:

My view of the health care worker of the future is not a doctor, but an 18-year-old, otherwise unemployed, who has two things. He has a backpack full of these tests, and a lancet to occasionally take a blood sample, and an AK-47. And these are the things that get him through his day.

Wow. (HT to Bryan for re-posting this article to the DIY Bio list).

Genomics industry facing risk of government regulation

It’s been a tough week for the personal genomics testing marketplace. First there were two long days of FDA meetings, and then today an Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings where the GAO announced the results of a “sting” operation into direct to consumer (DTC) genomics companies. Below is the (brutal) GAO video. As Daniel MacArthur has pointed out, today there exist both legitimate and not-so-legitimate testing firms, but the GAO has lumped them all in together, which will make it easier for pro-regulatory forces to get their hooks into the industry. I urge you to read MacArthur’s entire analysis here, since he follows the industry closely and is saddened by the fact that:

The momentum seems to be well and truly in favour of the bureaucrats now. The prospect of increased regulation (specifically from the FDA) seemed to be enthusiastically received by the Committee today; there was explicit mention of increased money for the FDA to support such a move. The shape of this regulation is as yet unclear, but I’m now extremely pessimistic about the industry’s prospects of escaping excessive, innovation-crushing regulation in the US.

This is very bad news for those of us who wish to see personal medicine flourish.

How high tech robotic surgery reduces costs

It’s always annoying to me when I hear people talk about how new advances in medicine are always going to cost more. In many cases the opposite is true. Here’s a well-written article from the NYT explaining why robotic surgery leads to CHEAPER health costs. The reasons are that there are fewer complications and patients can go home earlier, saving hospitals quite a bit of cash.

UCLA Scientists Create Army of Immune Cells to Kill Cancers

This is super-interesting and the researchers say they could be testing it in humans within a year.
From the press release:

“Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center created a large, well armed battalion of tumor-seeking immune system cells and watched, in real time using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), as the special forces traveled throughout the body to locate and attack dangerous melanomas.”

Uncovering the genetic signature of longevity

Thomas Perls, Paola Sebastiani, and others recently published work that finds 70 genes to be involved in longevity (WSJ article). Using these genes, scientists could predict with 77% accuracy who would be exceptionally long-lived. Given this evidence, I wonder what the public will make of statements from people like the Blue Zone’s Dan Buettner that longevity is 90% lifestyle and 10% genes. From looking at this new study, it seems as though it might be the other way around…

The New Hacker Hobby That Will Change the World

Here’s my most recent column on DIY bio:

Personal computing altered the world forever, and now the digitization of biology is poised to bring about sweeping change. Craig Venter’s recent announcement of the first synthetic genome was a huge milestone, but many outside of Silicon Valley remain unaware of the “do-it-yourself biology” movement (DIY bio).

This movement consists of smart engineers who like to tinker in garages, basements and living rooms, hacking the genetic codes of various organisms. Often, their goal is simple fun — to make cells blink, glow or smell like banana. Such pursuits are reminiscent of the beginnings of the PC revolution.

Back in the 1970s, it was the Homebrew Club that brought together clever thinkers — such as future Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — to trade parts, circuits and information for DIY computing devices.

As Wozniak has recounted, “The Apple I and II were designed strictly on a hobby, for-fun basis, not to be a product for a company.”

Some have argued that biology is different from computing in that it is more complicated and harder to do because lab work is involved.

That idea is put forward by people who don’t understand their history, according to Andrew Hessel, a synthetic biologist heavily involved in the movement.

“In the beginning, computing was very hard,” he said.


Read more here.