Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2019

Sickle Cell Disease- Therapy Success, Anti-GE Failure

While the internet's 'experts' and celebrity doctors proclaim genetic engineering to be a dangerous and unnecessary foray into 'playing God", a young woman's life has changed forever because of a revolutionary therapy.  The story appeared on the CBS News magazine 20/20 on December 29, 2019. 

At this point, Jeannelle Stephenson appears to be cured of Sickle Cell Disease, a debilitating genetic disorder that caused her immense pain and suffering. 
Ms. Stephenson suffered from "bone crushing pain" and a sedentary lifestyle because of the disease. She considered herself "middle age" in her 20's because the disease kills its victims early. She was not alone, as Sickle Cell Disease affects about 100,000 Americans.  I covered the story and modern therapies on the Talking Biotech Podcast
First her bone marrow was destroyed using chemotherapy.  At that point she could produce no more blood cells.  Then scientists introduced stem cells genetically…

Jeffery Smith's Confession

I thought he was going to apologize.  Instead he asked for more money to keep the crazy boat afloat, as his non-profit is as bankrupt as his scientific messages. It was only a matter of time. 




Jeffrey Smith is the author of books and producer of documentaries, the origin of hundreds of talks, articles and websites, all extolling the dangers of genetic engineering. He once was one of the prominent figures in that arena, and maybe still is. However that that arena has transformed into a tiny handful of science-free experts continuing to convince the credulous that their food world is about to collapse at any second, and that Monsanto is around every corner with a frosty stein of cancer-causing glyphosate with their name on it. 
Nobody is buying it anymore.  Two decades of fear-based messaging have influenced a culture by condemning failed agriculture, a corrupt regulatory system, and poison food supply.  But people keep eating. Sure there are boxes with butterflies and expensive boutique …

Learning to Live with Losing a Passion

I'm grieving a change in my life, and while some may consider this over-dramatic, I'm wrestling with my new reality and ultimately what this will be.

For 17 years my central roles as a professor have always been research and teaching.  I took on 5.5 years of wonderfully burdensome departmental administration and didn't miss a beat in publication, finding funding or mentoring students. 

In May of 2018 I was asked to step down as Department Chair. It was a tremendous shock to me, and grieving process unfolded as I learned to refocus my concern away from the management of a large group, big budgets, endless need, and the hiring and mentoring of junior faculty. It took me almost a year to find hard joy in intense work again, despite being surrounded by great faculty and wonderful scientists and students in my lab. 

It still was a very productive year that I look back on with a great sense of accomplishment.  


While my expertise is in genomics, molecular biology and biotechnology, …

Talking Biotech 217 - Precision Medicine

Can genetic sequence data be used to guide diagnosis and therapy?  Scientists are finding that analysis of genetic information can reveal important information about drug sensitivity, probability of disease development, and other health risks and benefits.  Dr. Julie Johnson describes the use of genomics in the next wave of precision medicine, describing how the future of health care will benefit from understanding patients at the molecular level. 

Listen to this episode here.

Talking Biotech 216 - Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria in Plants

Plants need nitrogen to live, so farmers provide this nutrient through fertilization.  However, nitrogen is a gas that makes up the majority of air, but plants can't use it in this gaseous form. A conversion needs to take place to "fix" nitrogen, binding into a plant-usable form. This has been done using the Haber-Bosch process, an industrial form of nitrogen fixation that greatly expanded agriculture.  This process requires energy in production and transportation, and runoff can pollute water resources. Azotic Technologies has identified a bacterial species that inhabits the plant, and fixes atmospheric nitrogen. This could represent at least a partial way to supplement the need for exogenous nitrogen application.  

Listen to this episode here.

Talking Biotech 215 - The GE Crop Ban in South Australia

While Australian farmers have adopted GE crops with great economic and environmental success, the government of the state of South Australia has imposed a moratorium on their use.  The ban has been in place since 2005, and farmers in the region need to rely on more intensive methods of weed control and experience lower yields.  Recent political changes sought to reverse the ban.  Today's podcast features Caroline Rhodes, the CEO of Grain Producers South Australia, and discusses the unfair and burdensome rules that harm the state's producers. 

Listen to this episode here. 

Talking Biotech 214 - Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Massive repositories of biological data have been generated over the last two decades. While humans can target certain goals to derive from the data, computational tools can oftentimes find what humans cannot, and do so without the inherent bias of the human brain. Dr. Gabe Musso from BioSymmetrics expertly describes artificial intelligence and machine learning, its limitations and misconceptions. 

Listen to this episode here. 

Talking Biotech 213 - Egg Production and GE Ethics

New laying chickens are constantly produced to satisfy the demand for eggs. Unfortunately, males and females hatch, only the females are needed for egg production.  The males are destroyed shortly after birth, which leads to ethical and practical questions. Dr. Nigel Urwin describes efforts to use biotechnology to allow separation of eggs containing male or female embryos. The technology may change perceptions of genetic engineering and egg production.

This episode may be heard here.  

Talking Biotech 212 - Michele Payn, Food Bullying

Michele Payn is  a much sought after keynote speaker and writer, and a strong advocate for agriculture.  She has completed the third book, this one dedicated to the pervasive problem of shaming and criticism around our personal food choices.  Listen to the whole story here.

Talking Biotech 211 - CAR-T Cells: Engineered to Attack Cancer

This week's podcast is pure gold, a great interview with Dr. Joe Fraietta from University of Pennsylvania.  Dr. Fraietta discusses CAR-T cells, human immune cells genetically engineered to attack specific cancers.  It is a great primer on a new therapy that is changing cancer treatment. 


Listen to the Podcast Here.

Talking Biotech 210 - Impossible Burgers and Biotechnology

This week's podcast covers plant-based meats and biotechnology used to create them, with Fueled by Science founder Dr. Chana Davis. 


Listen here!

Faculty- You Are the Captain of Your Ship

My heart goes out to UC Berkeley researchers that literally had the plug pulled on their research.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has initiated a series of power shut-downs to curtail  potential wildfires sparked by their power lines in the Bay Area.  A few years ago their equipment led to a massive wildfire where they were found liable, so this move attempts to limit their exposure-- by cutting off power to 2.5 million people for up to 6 days

This causes unbelievably hard problems for folks in need of power to run medical electrical equipment etc, so it there are significant issues here that reach beyond inconvenience.  That said, this is an important note to faculty (and postdocs and students) about the limits of a university to help with a major crisis-- no matter how good the facilities people are, you can't count on the system to save you. 

That reality as researchers proactively took charge to save their critical resources. I have a funny feeling that it is only a few …

Talking Biotech 207 - Engineering Microbes to Fix Nitrogen

What if we could create microbes that would fix atmospheric nitrogen and deliver it directly to the roots of plants?  That's the idea of Joyn Bio's Dr. Michael Mille.  The company has set out to use genetic engineering to reprogram microbial "chassis" that can do the work in the field, limiting dependence on external nitrogen fertilizer.  The process would transform agriculture and decrease carbon and nitrogen pollution associated with agriculture. 
This week's podcast.

TB206 - The Ugly Politics of Glyphosate Litigation

A relatively safe agricultural chemical is demonized as a carcinogen, lobbyists pose as journalists and stoke fear, NGOs defy science to advance agenda, lawyers make a fortune, science suffers and farmers lose options.  A population lives in fear of its food.  This is the fallout of the IARC decision. 
In today's podcast I speak with Dr. David Zaruk, a professor that understands risk and has examined the IARC decisions and the internal politics and gyrations of vilifying an agricultural compound, straight from the tort law playbook.

TB205 - The Oxitec GE Mosquito Situation

Sterile insect technique is the process of treating insects with radiation to damage their DNA to render them unable to reproduce, and then releasing them into populations of the same species. Within a generation the numbers plummet.  This is a great approach for A. egyptii mosquitoes, as a genetic solution can slow spread of Yellow Fever, Dengue, Malaria, Zika, West Nile and a host of other diseases. It is better to control insects with genetics rather than insecticides.

Oxitech takes this one further and produces sterile insects using a larval-lethal gene that they can turn off in the lab.  Lab grown mosquitoes grow just fine, adults are sorted into males and females, and males are released to mate and pass on the lethal gene to populations that spread disease. The next generation, well, isn't. 

But control is not complete and by definition, the engineered mosquitoes must mate with local populations. It is important to note that the local populations of A. egyptii are invasive and…

Talking Biotech 204 - Image Manipulation, Plagiarism, and Misconduct

Dr. Elisabeth Bik is amazing, with an eagle eye on publication misconduct. She voluntarily scans the scientific literature, looking carefully at images of cells and gels. Sometimes she finds that data have been fabricated. She reports this to journal editors, and hopes that the journals take appropriate action. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes there is fallout.  She is taking a huge risk to ensure the integrity of the literature, as careers can hang in the balance, and she sets herself up for professional and personal peril.  We owe her a great debt and need to know her story and stand behind her. Please listen to her story. 

This week's podcast. 

Guest on CanSurvivor

I had a most wonderful conversation with Kelsey Smith at CanSurvivor.  We discussed issues in health and nutrition, genetics and technology, along with some hints on the next-generation of new cancer therapies that are on the scientific horizon.  She was so much fun to talk to, and we share a forward-thinking and optimistic look at technology and the promises it holds for food and medicine. 



Talking Biotech 203 - An HIV Preventative from Rice

Could a prophylactic powder from GMO rice stop HIV transmission in the Developing World? Dr. Evangelia Vamaka and her team have developed the technology, and it works well so far... This week's podcast with Lethbridge Alberta Canada high school student Michelle Wu.

Listen to the podcast here. 

Blocked from the USRTK Facebook Page

I liked visiting the US-RTK Facebook page a lot like I liked visiting the dentist.  Yes, it is uncomfortable at times, but I leave feeling like something was accomplished.  The difference is that in the dentist office I just leave behind spit water. On the US-RTK Facebook page I leave behind compelling information that helps link their followers to legitimate science. 

At least I used to. 

I was a "Top Fan" of the site, a designation given to those with frequent comments. 

This week I returned from Australia and spent nights up late, taking advantage of jet lag.  I was working on a couple of work projects, but would check over at US-RTK now and then. I frequently commented.  Kindly.  Lovingly.  With great respect and patience.  And it drove them crazy. 

I took a few screenshots.  I'd comment on something that they posted that was not quite true (imagine that), using science as a basis for the discussion. 

They'd return comments, calling the science "Bayer Propaganda&…

A Lesser Abomination

The Scientific American article about "dying broccoli" and "toxic corn" drew wide criticism for its unreferenced and outright false indictment of modern agriculture, and flimsy treatment of concepts in microbiomes.  My dissection can be seen here.

I contacted the editors, and apparently others did too. I was shocked to find out that there was no peer review or expert consultation.  The editors kindly returned a conscientious and conciliatory email that suggested they made a mistake and the authors would revise. 

Personally, nothing short of a full retraction was a remedy.  That first article was absolutely horrible, D.O.A. horrible. Not only did it vilify farmers, it scared people about food, and misinformed them about basic biology, and it was done under the banner of Scientific American, a trusted popular scientific brand.  

Out of the frying pan...

The editors published a "corrected" version.  I learned of the revision via Twitter from Dr. Elisabeth Bik (@…

Talking Biotech 202 - Supporting Farmer Choice in South Australia

Listen to the Podcast HereAustralia has welcomed the use of genetically engineered crops, and farmers have found particular benefit from broad acre canola and cotton cultivation. However, the benefits were not realized by some states because of local moratoriums imposed by state governments. Farmers in South Australia grow wheat, canola and pulses, along with wine grapes, olives and other horticultural crops.  They would like the option to grow GE canola, as it may offer some benefits. More importantly, new technologies in gene editing may permit rapid response to new threats as well as tackle current issues in drought, frost, and pathogens. Fortunately, a science-minded change in government has led to discussion of removing the ban.  I speak with four agricultural leaders from the Grain Producers SA, a non-profit organization coordinating grower advocacy and communications. With Tanya Morgan, Adrian McCabe (@AdrianMcCabe6), Wade Dabinette and Dion Woolford (@rudigermaxpower).

When Community Leaders (and News Media) Get it Wrong

It always bothers me when prominent community figures or celebs push rhetoric designed to deny farmers access to technology.  I'm visiting Adelaide, Australia and was amazed to see a local paper run a story about a local wine maker that "slams" a likely change in farmer seed choice. 

GE crops are perfectly allowable in Australia, but the state governments of South Australia and Tasmania have imposed restrictions that block their use.  Recent changes in policy suggest that these rules are likely to change. 

But news reports show that at least one local business leader is ramping up the rhetoric to skew public perception.  That's fine on the surface. We should have honest, science-based discussions.  The problem is that he gets the science wrong, the debate is asymmetrical, and it scares the public and disparages farmers that simply want the right to choose the technology whey wish to use. 

This article ran in South Australia:  (click panels to enbiggen)


It is disturbing w…

Scientific American Destroys Public Trust in Science

This is a sad epitaph, parting words to an old friend that is now gone, leaving in a puff of bitter betrayal. 
When I was a kid it was common for my mom to buy me a magazine if I was sick and home from school.  I didn't want MAD Magazine or comic books.  I preferred Scientific American
The once stalwart publication held a unique spot at the science-public interface, bringing us interesting and diverse stories of scientific interest, long before the internet made such content instantly accessible.  It was our trusted pipeline to the new edges of scientific discovery, from the mantle of the earth to the reaches of space, and every critter in between.
But like so much of our trusted traditional science media, Scientific American has traded its credibility for the glitz of post-truth non-scientific beliefs and the profits of clickbait.The problem is that when a trusted source publishes false information (or worse, when it hijacked by activists) it destroys trust in science, trust in s…