Friday, May 22, 2015

BEINGS launches work on global consensus for ethical course of biotech

Novelist Margaret Atwood on stage at BEINGS with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (center) and Thierry Magnin, who is a physicist, Catholic priest and professor of ethics.

By Carol Clark

Some of the world’s preeminent scientists and bioethicists gathered with leaders of philosophy, sociology, law, policy and religion in Atlanta May 18-20 for BEINGS 2015. The landmark summit launched work on a global consensus for the direction of biotechnology for the 21st century.

The setting for this futuristic event: The Tabernacle, an historic former church turned music venue, with red walls swirled with murals and wood floors that creak like the deck of a ship. Novelist Margaret Atwood, creator of fictional laboratory creatures such as the pigoon, gave a keynote.

“The lid is off the Pandora’s Box of genetic modification,” Atwood said. “This is a pivotal moment. Deliberate well. Keep the bar high. Take precautions.”

And with that, the tumultuous voyage began.

BEINGS, short for Biotech and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit, was organized by Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. “The idea is audacious,” Wolpe admitted of their plan to write global guidelines for the aspirations, ethics and policies of biotechnology within the next eight months.

Paul Root Wolpe on the potential and perils of biotechnology:

The BEINGS delegates are up to the task, he added. About 135 delegates from 25 countries joined the summit to take up the challenge of charting a course for how biotechnology can best contribute to human flourishing while navigating the potential perils and ethical pitfalls.

Tensions soon emerged as delegates from different perspectives took the microphone.

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker threw down the deregulatory gauntlet. “Stay out of the way” of biotech innovation, he urged, as scientists seek to prevent, treat and cure diseases. He cited major improvements in life expectancy around the world largely due to biomedical breakthroughs.

Pinker downplayed fears of eugenics and “designer” babies, while others countered that we are living in a world of competition and should be extremely concerned about the potential power to “edit” the genes of the human germline.

Princeton’s Ruha Benjamin, author of “People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier,” called for the inclusion of those who identify as disabled in discussions about the goals and policies of biotechnology. “Anything less is presumptive and paternalistic,” she said.

It’s important to think about how to distribute benefits, added Benjamin, an assistant professor of African American Studies focused on issues of science and health. “There is no such thing as trickle-down biotech.”

Benjamin and three other delegates summarized their thoughts in an opinion piece for the Guardian: “As we pursue promising treatments, we should also be asking what we are trying to treat; whether it is best treated biomedically; who is included as funders, patients, donors and scientists; who is left out; who profits; and whether or not the treatment masks, depoliticizes, or exacerbates political and social inequality.”

By the afternoon of the first day of the summit, Wolpe said he knew the gathering was going to be a success. “I could tell by the tone of the conversation, and how people were lining up at the microphones to speak, that we had struck a chord,” he says. “We need to bridge a tension in philosophies, but both sides believe that curing human diseases and stopping suffering is an important goal. We have to get outside of the theoretical arguments and start talking about practical, specific issues.”

BEINGS divided discussions into the following major topic areas.

Aspirations and Goals: How should we think about differing goals of biotechnology, from making money, to curing disease, to understanding the basic nature of the organic world, to promoting human flourishing?

Alien Organisms and New (ID)entities: Cellular biotechnologies enable us to engineer novel organisms for industrial, environmental or therapeutic purposes. How might these organisms modify existing social systems and ecosystems, and how do we balance innovation with responsibility?

Bioterror/Bioerror: What are the potential dangers of synthetic biological materials and pathogens in terms of accidents or criminal intent?

Ownership: Should custom-designed genetic material or organisms be subject to patents and copyright?

Donorship: How can government and private sector entities collaborate to protect donors and create standards for bio- and stem-cell banks?

“All voices have a place,” Wolpe stressed. “We don’t have to agree on everything. Wherever we have honest, important disagreement in an area, we will note it in the final document.”

At the end of the summit, more than 80 delegates committed to actively working on writing the guidelines for the five major topic areas. Another 30 agreed to serve as reviewers and editors as drafts are ready. Their goal is to have a final document by next January, which they will submit for publication by a major journal.

“We do not represent just a single segment of society or government body or special interest,” Wolpe says. “We’re a group of global citizens who believe that for biotechnology to be used successfully it has to be used ethically. We as a group can create a document that is persuasive and has value.”

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

For spider monkeys, social grooming comes at a cost

Spider monkeys are fission-fusion socializers, meaning they often break up into smaller groups and then rejoin the larger community. "They basically hang out with whoever they want, and that changes often," says Thomas Gillespie, an Emory disease ecologist. (Photos by Rebecca Rimbach)

By Carol Clark

Social grooming, or helping others to stay clean and free of lice and other ecto-parasites, has long been associated with hygiene and good health in wild primates. In the process of picking out ecto-parasites, however, the groomers may be picking up internal ones, a new study finds.

The journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B published the results of the study on critically endangered brown spider monkeys, showing that physical contact is associated with the spread of several common gastrointestinal parasites.

“Previously, it was generally assumed that animals are more likely to pick up these parasites from feces or other environmental sources,” says Thomas Gillespie, a disease ecologist at Emory University whose lab led the study. “Our research shows that the external surfaces of animals can serve as viable locations for development to infective stages of such parasites.”

Living in groups comes with costs and benefits. The benefits include more eyes, ears, noses and collective knowledge to hunt food sources and to avoid predators. The costs are competition for food and for mates. And growing evidence is revealing how group interactions affect the dynamics of disease transmission among social animals.

“Breakthroughs in technology are allowing for more detailed network analyses, so that we can study the connection between sociality and health in ways that we couldn’t in the past,” Gillespie says. “We are working on models of health risk factors for different species of endangered primates, to try to ensure that disease does not finish them off, but our data could also have implications for people.”

The current study centered on a community of 16 brown spider monkeys in Hacienda San Juan, a patch of tropical rainforest in central Columbia.

Watch a data visualization of the day-to-day movements of the spider monkeys, created by study co-author Donal Bisanzio, who was an Emory post-doctoral fellow.

Spider monkeys are arboreal, spending most of their time in the trees. They swing from branch to branch through the canopy by their prehensile tails. Their communities split into smaller groups that later reconvene, a trait known as fission-fusion.

“They basically hang out with whoever they want, and that changes often,” Gillespie says. This fission-fusion trait is associated with intelligence, he adds, and is also seen in chimpanzees, dolphins and humans.

While humans are far more complex, subdividing into groups bound by their families, churches, schools and workplaces, brown spider monkeys split into smaller groups primarily to search for food. “That enables them to cover more ground,” Gillespie explains. “They spend most of their day looking for ripe fruit, in between mating and playing.”

The monkeys keep in contact with other members of the group through loud vocalizations. “They can really put on a show when they’ve found a fig tree full of fruit,” Gillespie says.

Spider monkeys are arboreal, spending most of their time in trees.

The interactions of fission-fusion animals are difficult to study in the wild because they are often on the move. For this study, the research team followed 12 individual spider monkeys of the community, collecting about 160 hours of data for each of them over the course of two years. The researchers recorded all social interactions that involved physical contact – including grooming, resting, embracing, mating and social play – and the duration of each interaction. They also collected a total of 166 fecal samples from the study group during the two-year period of the study and tested them for a variety of parasites.

The researchers used the data to diagram the contact and proximity networks, along with the levels of parasite infections, for each individual.

The results showed no correlation between mere proximity and parasite infection, but a strong correlation between physical contact and infection. Specifically, infections with the roundworms Strongyloides and Trichostrongylus were associated with grooming interactions.

“Our findings suggest that social grooming is the biggest risk for parasite transmission among this community of spider monkeys,” Gillespie says. “The groomer is removing matted fur and debris from another monkey, and some of that debris can contain active life stages of parasites that are not visible to the naked eye.”

In addition to Gillespie and Bisanzio, the study authors include Rebecca Rimbach of the German Primate Center and Fundación Proyecto Primates Colombia; Nelson Galvis and Andrés Link, of the Funación Proyect Primates and the Universidad de Los Andes; and Anthony Di Fiore of the Fundación Proyecto Primates and the University of Texas at Austin.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

A physicist's guide to foam and fortune

From foam to Frankenstein: Sidney Perkowitz enjoys a cappuccino (extra foam) at the Ink and Elm in Emory Village. So far this year he has published his first e-book, Universal Foam 2.0, and started work on a new book project, "Frankenstein 2018." (Photo by Carol Clark)

By Carol Clark

You never know what’s going to bubble up on the agenda of physicist Sidney Perkowitz, Emory Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus. Since the 76-year-old Perkowitz retired in 2011, he seems to pop up everywhere, from the Atlanta Science Festival to South Korean national television to a high-level policy meeting in Washington DC.

After 42 years of research and teaching at Emory, he has shifted his focus from the lab and classroom to the wider world. His mission: Communicating science in ways that get people interested and better informed.

“You’re doing something good for society if you can convey science well to a lay person,” Perkowitz says. “You can have an influence over everyone from a child to a congressman.”

Perkowitz began writing about physics for a general audience when he was about 50. “It forced me to be humble because I had a lot to learn,” he says. “Several editors really helped improve my writing. One gave me this great tip: “Remember, you don’t want to simplify the science. You want to simplify the writing.’”

Perkowitz has written six books about physics geared for a lay audience. His most successful, “Universal Foam,” was published in 2001 and remained in print through 2008, including five foreign editions. The book describes the myriad incarnations and inherent mysteries of foam, from densely packed bubbles floating atop a cappuccino to ocean white caps, soap bubbles, and exotic foamy materials used in aerospace and medicine.

Watch a clip from an English-language version of a South Korean documentary inspired by Perkowitz' book on foam, including interviews with Perkowitz:

Last fall, the book brought a Korean television film crew to Perkowitz’s door. “The filmmakers had contacted me out of the blue and said they wanted to make a documentary for children based on the book,” he says. “They sent over a cameraman, a sound guy, a director and a translator.”

So that’s how Perkowitz found himself in his kitchen, brewing a cappuccino as he was being interviewed about the wonders of foam. “We had a wonderful time,” he says of the experience. “The most amazing part was they paid me! It wasn’t a lot, but I was just doing it for fun. So that was a pretty great deal.”

The documentary, “Bubbles That Can Change the World,” was funded by the South Korean government and shown throughout the country as a way to inspire children’s interest in science.

After the publisher stopped putting out new editions of “Universal Foam,” Perkowitz obtained the rights so that he could update it himself as an e-book in January. He titled it “Universal Foam 2.0” “It’s amazingly easy,” Perkowitz says of the process of producing an e-book. He adds that he primarily did it to gain experience with e-books, and doesn’t expect it to sell many copies at this stage. “I just love learning something new and being engaged,” he explains. “And I want to feel that I’m doing something useful for science.”

During the past four years, Perkowitz has also written 20 magazine articles, given public talks, and serves on the science outreach committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which takes him to Washington DC occasionally.

A selection of some of the many editions of Mary Shelley's classic "Frankenstein." (Andy Marbett)

Perkowitz is now at work on this seventh book, which has the working title "Frankenstein 2018." He is both contributing a chapter and co-editing the book, an anthology due out March 11, 2018, the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel.

“There is something in humanity that wants to find a way to create life and to live forever. But that same desire is also full of fear,” Perkowitz says of the enduring appeal of Frankenstein.

The subject is more relevant than ever. Emory’s Center for Ethics is hosting a major international gathering in Atlanta May 17 to 19, to discuss both aspirations and guidelines for the era of synthetic biology. Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit (BEINGS) will bring together delegates from the top 30 biotechnology producing countries of the world.

“The idea of genetic engineering and creating an entirely new being is the 21st-century version of Frankenstein,” Perkowitz says. “Earlier, creating life was envisioned as stitching together dead body parts and zapping them with electricity. Now it’s about getting a micro-scalpel and moving around genes. Some people are afraid of genetically modified food. Imagine how they’ll feel about genetically modified animals and people.”

Perkowitz’ co-editor for the book project is Eddy Von Mueller, an Emory lecturer in film and media studies. The two have already rounded up a dozen contributors for the project, from religion, the arts and sciences, and secured a contract from Pegasus Books.

“Frankenstein is taught often in college classrooms, so we think this anthology might be a good seller as a textbook,” Perkowitz says. “The publisher agreed.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Graduate strives to help female scientists in Africa

Emory graduate Kwadwo "Kojo" Sarpong, a native of Ghana, felt compelled to do something about the opportunity gap in Africa between men and women scientists. Emory Photo/Video.

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

When a White House invitation to the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit showed up in his email last year, Emory senior Kwadwo Sarpong didn’t give it much thought. “I honestly thought it was some kind of a joke,” says Sarpong, who graduated from Emory this month with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB). 

But when a second invitation soon followed, Sarpong took notice.

“The Obama Administration’s Office of Public Engagement was interested in what I was doing to bridge the opportunity gap between male and female scientists in Africa,” explains Sarpong, who is known to his friends as “Kojo.”

That’s how Sarpong, who is from Ghana, found himself attending an event with top African officials, international leaders and U.S. cabinet members, where he represented the African Research Academies for Women (ARA-W), an organization that he co-founded to nurture the interests of aspiring female scientists in Africa by providing hands-on experience in research laboratories.

Sarpong arrived in Atlanta in 2009 with one goal: education.

Growing up in Ghana, the youngest of four boys, he was deeply aware of shortcomings within the nation’s healthcare system. When one of his brothers became ill with paralytic polio, he recalls that some blamed it on evil spirits.

Stricken with severe fevers while growing up, Sarpong spent considerable time in hospitals himself, an experience that would feed a budding interest in medicine.

During his first year of studies at the University of Ghana, Sarpong was thrilled to learn he’d “won a green card” and the chance to travel to the U.S. “Like a lot of African students, I had very high hopes and dreams — I was going to transfer directly into an American university,” he recalls, smiling. “Instead, I ended up living with my cousin in Atlanta and working as a housekeeper at a medical center and a cashier and warehouse associate at Walmart.”

As friends back in Ghana were preparing to graduate from college, Sarpong studied their Facebook photos. While their lives were moving forward, his seemed stuck. “Everybody thinks that you come to America and your life will change,” Sarpong says. “I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake.”

In time, he began taking classes in chemistry at Georgia Perimeter College. Motivated by his brother’s experience with polio, “I became very interested in neuroscience,” he says.

With the help of Emory’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development — a program funded by the National Institutes of Health to expand scientific workforce diversity — Sarpong arrived as a transfer student in Fall 2013.

Talking about his experiences one day with a friend who had graduated from the University of Ghana, he was shocked to learn that she had taken a job as a bank teller — the only position she could find. “There is nothing here for women in science,” she told him.

Sarpong felt compelled to do something about the opportunity gap that exists in Ghana — and much of the developing world — between men and women in the sciences. “Ghana is still a male-dominated culture,” he explains. “I began thinking about what I could do to create social change with something I really love — research.”

Read more in Emory Report.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Umbral Moonshine glimmers on 'The Big Bang Theory'

The precise statement of the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture can be seen on Sheldon's white board.

The proof of the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture has been making news in math and science circles in recent months, including stories in Qanta Magazine and Scientific American. The conjecture was proved by Emory mathematicians Ken Ono and Michael Griffin, and Case Western's John Duncan. The conjecture draws on everything from mock modular forms to string theory and quantum gravity, making it difficult to state. But it has still managed to find its way into pop culture.

A recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” titled “The Hofstader Insufficiency,” gave the conjecture a cameo of sorts. During one scene, the white board in apartment 4A, where Sheldon and Leonard live, was covered in the mathematical formulas of the Dynkin diagrams and the McKay-Thompson series of the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture. And the screenshot, above, shows the precise statement of the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture by Ono and his collaborators.

So remember to watch the white board in future “Big Bang” episodes. It may have news of some pretty cool discoveries.

Mathematicians prove the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture