The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

July 10, 2004



Updating the android project…


The Humanoid Race


Machines are getting more and more like the rest of us.  A piece-by-piece guide to the globe’s most advanced bots.



“…With each advance in computing speed, battery capacity, camera and motor miniaturization, and software capability, the world grows closer to the ultimate goal of robotics: a walking, talking, feeling android worthy of our cinematic inspirations.


“Consider the progress of just the past 15 years.  There are now robots that can get around on two legs, participate in simple conversations, and manipulate objects in rudimentary ways.  Of course, we don’t yet have a bot that can navigate downtown Manhattan, tie its shoelaces, or even tell a chair from a desk.  MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal holds out hope that within five years, robots will cross a critical threshold, becoming partners rather than tools - in other words, we’ll have friends, not appliances.  And while there are a number of extremely complex problems to solve before we can make something as advanced as Sonny, the star of I, Robot, we’re getting there, one piece at a time….”


Wired Magazine (Issue 12.07) - July 2004


Old things are new again…


FDA Approves Leeches as Medical Devices



“The government has lent its seal of approval to a marketing an age-old medical device—leeches.


“The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that Ricarimpex SAS a French firm, is the first company to request and receive FDA clearance to market the bloodsucking aquatic animals as medical devices.


“Leeches are already widely used in American hospitals, and companies that raised and sold them here before 1976 were allowed to continue doing so. However, the medical device law passed that year required newcomers to the field to seek approval.


“For many people, leaches conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart removing the bloodsuckers from his legs in ‘African Queen,’ but FDA reports that leeches can help heal skin grafts by removing blood pooled under the graft and restore blood circulation in blocked veins by removing pooled blood.


“Indeed the use of leeches to draw blood goes back thousands of years. They were widely used as an alternative treatment to bloodletting and amputation for several thousand years. Leeches reached their height of medicinal use in the mid-1800s….” – June 29, 2004


Using implants to deliver psychiatric treatment…


Panel Suggests Neck Implant for Depression


Some patients need radical treatments after existing methods fail, experts argue.



“A surgical implant that stimulates the brain should get government approval to treat chronic depression, a panel of federal experts said Tuesday [June 15] – marking the first time an implanted device has been recommended for the treatment of a psychiatric disorder.


“Using a technique known as vagus-nerve stimulation, the device uses electrodes implanted in the neck to activate brain regions that are believed to regulate mood.


“The decision by an expert advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration came after a day of clashing scientific opinions about whether the data submitted by the manufacturer were adequate for approval. Proponents of the device prevailed, citing the desperate need of patients with chronic depression who do not respond to existing treatments….”


The Washington Post/ – June 16, 2004


A new way to determine drug prescriptions…


Cocktail Hour


Get ready for high-speed pharmbots that mix and match drugs and doses by the millions.



“For the 2 million Americans suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, the best cure is also a curse. Anti-inflammatory steroids dramatically reduce the agonizing pain, but they also cause nasty side effects like diabetes and high blood pressure. Chemists at pharmaceutical and biotech companies have long sought the perfect cure - a steroid that cuts inflammation without the downsides. So far, no luck.


“Enter Alexis Borisy, the 32-year-old CEO of Boston biotech CombinatoRx, with a novel suggestion: Why not deploy two chemicals to attack the disease from different directions? Using a new drug development process known as combination high-throughput screening, CombinatoRx mixes millions of pairs of existing drugs in search of unexpected synergies - the rare case where one plus one equals three. The process has revealed several promising leads in the quest to treat rheumatoid arthritis. One, currently in human trials, combines a common steroid with an ‘enhancer molecule,’ targeting the inflammation without introducing the toxicity….”


Wired Magazine (Issue 12.07) - July 2004


Pharmacogenetics – using genetics to design and prescribe drugs…


Your Genes Can Affect Drug Activity



“A study showing that an individual’s genetic makeup affects the response to a cholesterol-lowering drug heralds a new medical discipline, researchers say: pharmacogenetics.


“‘It’s not something that will change medical practice just yet,’says Dr. Paul M. Ridker, chief of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and lead author of a new study appearing in the June 16 Journal of the American Medical Association. But ‘over the next 10 years we will see a lot of studies of this kind that will help address the issue of how we treat our patients.’


“‘Burgeoning’ is the word Ridker used for the field of pharmacogenetics, while Susanne B. Haga, project director of human genetics at the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, a private research group, said knowledge about the interaction between genes and drugs ‘is growing by leaps and bounds.’


“‘Over the long run,’ said Haga, co-author of an editorial accompanying the report, ‘information on how genetic variation affects drug efficacy and drug safety will become a basic part of drug development.’ But right now, she said, ‘the commercial ability to test for these variations is not available.’


“Still, the study ‘will be a real eye-opener for physicians and patients,’ Ridker said....”


Forbes/HealthDay – June 15, 2004


The gene chip is already here, but only for researchers (at least, for the moment)…



Inventor: Affymetrix



“Every cell in your body contains a copy of your entire genetic makeup—some 50,000 known genes and gene variants. But to make that information useful to scientists who are trying to identify genetic markers for cancer and develop drugs that target specific genes, a tool was needed to isolate each gene and make it easily identifiable. The new GeneChip from Affymetrix does just that. While previous chips each contained a portion of the human genome, the GeneChip is the first to fit the whole thing on one.”


Availability:  Now, $300 to $500 [Note:  Currently available for research use only.]

To Learn More:


Time Magazine’s Coolest Inventions of 2003


Fighting cancer at the genetic level…


Genetically-modified Virus Explodes Cancer Cells



“A genetically-modified virus that exploits the selfish behaviour of cancer cells may offer a powerful and selective way of killing tumours.


“Deleting a key gene from the virus enabled it to infect and burst cancer cells while leaving normal tissues unharmed, reveals a study by researchers at Cancer Research UK and Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of London.


“Viruses spread by infiltrating the cells of their host. Normally, the detection of an intruder by a cell triggers a process called apoptosis, which causes the cell to commit suicide and prevents the virus spreading further. However, viruses can carry genes that allow them to slip past this cell death process in normal cells, causing infection.


“The UK researchers deleted one such gene in an adenovirus. This meant that the virus was immediately detected by normal cells and was unable to spread. But in cancer cells, which grow uncontrollably and ignore the cell death process, the virus was able to thrive and spread rapidly. It then multiplied so vigorously that it killed the cancer cells by making them explode.


“‘The great thing about this strategy is that the cancer cell does all the hard work,’ says Nick Lemoine, director of the Cancer Research UK Clinical Centre at Bart’s Medical School, who led the team. ‘It makes more and more virus to infect its neighbouring cancer cells. But if a normal cell is infected, it commits suicide before it can make new virus and spread of the virus is contained.’...” news service – June 1, 2004


Turning away from the biotech revolution…


Alternative Medicine Growing in Popularity



“Alternative medicine – including yoga, meditation, herbs and the Atkins diet – appears to be growing in popularity in the United States, perhaps because of dissatisfaction with conventional care, the government said Thursday [May 27].


“More than a third of American adults used such practices in 2002, according to the government survey of 31,000 people, the largest study on non-conventional medical approaches in the United States.


“If prayer is included, about 62 percent of U.S. adults used some form of alternative medicine.


“The results seem to indicate more people are turning to alternative medicine, though the 2002 survey could not be directly compared to previous studies because of differences in size and survey methods, health officials said.


“The top alternative therapies included prayer (43 percent of adults), natural products (19 percent), meditation (8 percent) and diets such as Atkins, Ornish, or the Zone (4 percent).


“More people also are using natural products such as herbs or enzymes to treat chronic or recurring pain, said Richard Nahin of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.


“‘Many conditions are not easily treated with conventional medicine,’ Nahin said. ‘It may be the public is turning to complementary and alternative medicine because it’s not getting relief from conventional medicine.’


“But people should not be turning away from conventional treatments that are proven safe, said Dr. Stephen Straus, director of the alternative medicine center.


“‘People are making individual decisions to neglect those therapies and we have concerns about those choices,’ he said.


“Health officials said they were concerned that 13 percent of those surveyed said they turned to alternative medicine because regular medicine is too expensive….” – Friday, May 28, 2004 (link no longer available)


Worth considering…



“Despite all the bad news coming out of biotech, the belief in a paradisaical transubstantiated future is as strong as ever among those who have always believed and it has spread, thanks to the power of the biotech idea.  The faith has been made enduring by almost a century of speculation.  In the twenty-five years since the dawn of biotech, the speculation has turned into public relations, the clay of raw science shaped into companies.  Venture capital has breathed life into the companies and biotech has enlisted everyone by going public and proselytizing the coming miracles.  Never before in human history have people been so sure that science—not magic, not God—was about to mine the secrets of nature and turn them over to human beings.  This is new.  It’s a religion in its own right and it is making converts….‘We believe there is a true destiny up ahead.  The techno rapture.’”


Rapture:  How Biotech Became the New ReligionA Raucous Tour of Cloning, Transhumanism, and the New Era of Immortality, by Brian Alexander (Basic Books, 2003), pp. 225, 254.




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