2005 September 30 Friday
Economic Collapse Avoidable During An Influenza Pandemic

Sherry Cooper and Donald Coxe of Canadian brokerage BMO Nesbitt Burns paint a very bleak economic picture should a dangerous flu such as the H5N1 avian flu develop into a deadly human pandemic strain.

They warn investors the economic fallout out of a pandemic would inflict pain across sectors and around the globe.

Airlines would be grounded, transport of goods would cease, the tourism and hospitality sectors would evaporate and the impact on exports would be devastating, Cooper wrote.

I agree the tourism and hospitality sectors would shrink to very small sizes. Also, gardener services would probably be banned as would most home maid services and lots of other home services that risk bringing workers into contact with lots of different residents. But the collapse of transportation is avoidable by reorganizing society into a large number of cocoon mini-societies that have very little contact with each other but which still move goods between the isolated nodes. I call this idea "workplace cocooning".

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, agrees with Cooper and Coxe that an influenza would have a huge impact on trade volumes (at least that is my interpretation of his statement).

"All the other catastrophes we've had in the world in recent years at the very most put screen doors on our borders. This would seal shut a six-inch steel door," Osterholm said.

Certainly resorts, hotels, and the airline industry will take huge hits from a hihgly lethal pandemic. But I do not buy this argument for all industries. Yes, if people panic so far out of their minds that they act really dumb then all transportation would cease and economies would collapse. But operators of transportation equipment can still work without getting exposed to influenza during a pandemic. It just takes some thoughtful reorganization of how things work.

The best approach I can see for reducing a pandemic disease's economic disruption and death toll is to have people live in workplaces for extended periods of time under quarantine conditions. I call this "workplace cocooning".

Take container ships and oil tankers as examples. The operators of those massive vessels do not need to get off the ships when in port. They also can avoid having port workers get on those ships. Container ships get off-loaded with huge cranes. The ship crews could hook cabling on containers to offload the containers if necessary. The food and other supplies for the ships could be replenished using cranes to lower supplies onto decks. Ship crews could stay on the ships for months ("workplace cocooning") without getting anywhere near local people when in ports.

Granted, the sailors would be fairly isolated for months. But look at teams of scientists in the Antarctica who stay down there for months. Oh how about explorers on ships in previous centuries. They were even more isolated and with far harsher and more dangerous conditions. Oil tanker crews similarly could just stay on board for months and visit many ports while staying safe distances from locals in ports.

Sailors do not want to stay on ships for many months. But they do not want to be unemployed or dead either. Sailors will face a choice of either signing up to get paid for long stretches on ships or being left on land and unemployed. Given those choices plenty of sailors would sign up for long stretches of work that allowed them to escape possible death from a pandemic sweeping the world. To get crews onto ships without chance of influenza spreading from an infected crew member the crews will need to initially go into a quarantine facility for perhaps 10 or 12 days to make sure none of them are already infected. But once they've gotten through their initial quarantine period in quarantine areas set up in port facilities they can get sent onto ships.

What about port workers? Simple enough: At the beginning of pandemics ask port workers to volunteer to move inside the gates of ports to live and work basically in a quarantined port isolated from the surronding society. Again, workplace cocooning. National Guard or police could enforce a policy of very limited exit and entry at each port. Most containers could be brought in via trains and the train operators could be under strict orders to never leave their trains while in ports.

What about train operators? Similar story to the port workers. Train operators would rarely leave their trains except at places selected for them to live isolated from the surrounding populations. Put some travel trailers or mobile homes in some train yards and arrange for food and other needed goods to be brought to the communities of train workers.

What about truck drivers and warehouses? Warehouse workers could also live in quarantine. Add some cots, futons, microwave ovens, refrigerators and the like to warehouses. Then the people who work in warehouses could stay in them for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week for weeks and months at a time.

Truck drivers could back trucks up to warehouse entrances but truck drivers would be required to keep their windows rolled up and not to exit their vehicles while getting loaded and unloaded at warehouses. Truck drivers could also live in isolated communities. Forget about going into restaurants at truck stops. Food could be cooked up by heavily covered and masked cooks and delivered out to places where the truckers could pick it up after delivery people have left. Or the truckers could just carry lots of sealed food that they eat cold or cook in their own microwave.

The basic pattern here is that personnel in each link in transportation chains could work without ever coming into close proximity with personnel who work in other links. The touching of surfaces touched by workers from other stages of transportation or breathing air which has cough droplets put there by workers from other stage can be made extremely unlikely. Methods of delivering food and other supplies could get worked out. If someone who operates a transportation company or trade association can't figure out how to greatly reduce exposure between workers who would basically be in different quarantine groups then that company should hire me as a consultant. I'll come up with procedures and techniques to reorganize businesses to operate as cocooned quarantine work groups.

Economies can reorganize to reduce human-to-human exposure by orders of magnitude. The workers will have to live and work in isolated groups for long stretches of time and many workers will have to say good bye to their families and live in workplaces for many month stretches. But economies do not have to collapse. Production and distribution of most types of goods does not have to stop.

In future posts I'll address retail food and goods distribution and also expand on other ideas for creating lots of isolated business units that can still carry on producing and distributing goods.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 30 01:27 AM  Pandemic Prepare Business
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2005 September 29 Thursday
Matthew Simmons On Softening Oil Peak Impact

Foreign Policy interviews Houston energy investment banker Matthew Simmons (author of the book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy) about the coming world peak in oil production and what could be done to soften the economic blow of declining oil production. (requires free registration)

FP: If you were the secretary of energy right now, what policies would you recommend to President Bush?

MS: If we restructure the way we use fuels, we might be able to get along very well with oil in decline. The single-most energy inefficient way we use oil is large trucks delivering goods over large distances. If you take all the goods that are trucked more than, say, 50 miles, onto railroad tracks, depending on the length of travel, you’d use between 3 to 10 times less energy. If you put them on a marine vessel, it’s even more efficient. So forget about just-in-time inventory. Once you get the large trucks off the road, you make a tremendous dent in traffic congestion, which is public enemy one through five on passenger car fuel efficiency.

But won't this happen anyhow if fuel costs for vehicles double or triple? To make that shift happen now would require either high energy taxes (not going to happen) or government edict forcing less truck use and more tain use (again not going to happen). If what he's saying is true then that is great news. We can gradually migrate businesses nearer to rail lines and adjust distribution patterns to reduce energy usage. But to do that now doesn't seem in the realm of the politically possible.

How much of transportation fuel is for trucks and how much for cars? Of the portion used by trucks how much of that is for home delivery? Also, what portion of total truck fuel use is for trips longer than, say, 50 miles or 100 miles?

My suspicion is that mail order deliveries by UPS and FedEx save fuel. People who would have driven to a store to buy something instead get the product delivered by truck to their door. Since that same truck passes through a neighborhood delivering to many other doorsteps the net effect must be a reduction in energy consumed as compared to having each purchaser drive to a store to pick up the same product. Furthermore, growth in home delivery increases fuel efficiency by allowing each delivery truck to empty its contents over a shorter delivery route.

Simmons argues for more work performed from home.

We also need to embrace the concept of distributed work. In most of our non-manufacturing commercial jobs, we assume that it’s better to have a lot of people working at the same site, even though it’s not necessary. By allowing people to work at home and keep their jobs, all they have to do is invest in communications such as video conferencing, the Internet, and cell phones.

I've heard claims that most work must get done in offices. But I can think of some big categories of work where that is not the case. For example, a lot of phone service work such as order taking could get done by home workers. This raises some security issues. But those issues seem like solvable problems in many cases.

Simmons wants more energy efficient agriculture.

We also have to change the way we distribute food. An amazing amount of the global food supply is transcontinental and produced by energy-intensive large-scale agriculture. Whole Foods, a successful grocery retailer, has basically created organic farming near each store it builds. The produce is less energy-intensive to grow and ship.

If fuel becomes a lot more expensive then I expect the market to provide sufficient incentive for shifts toward less energy-intensive production methods and transportation patterns. From a policy perspective the most important question is whether governments currently behave in ways that create obstacles for approaches with greater energy efficiency. Well, what government-erected obstacles can any readers see for greater energy efficiency?

The biggest obstacle I can see for greater energy efficiency in transportation is the unfriendliness of roads for bicyclists. I'd use a bicycle with perhaps a pull cart to go to a grocery store if I didn't have to fear getting hit by a car. The bicycling would be good exercise. But peddling down narrow shoulders around parked cars strikes me as risky business.

I find credible Simmons' arguments for why oil production is going to peak sooner than government projections. See the interview for some of his observations about various oil fields. But I'm less convinced by his argument on what we should do about falling oil production.

I think governments should lead more by example. Governments should set an example in the category of energy usage where the biggest improvements in efficiency can be achieved with the least impact on living standards. Think of energy usage as dividing up into three main categories: transportation, building heating/cooling/lighting, and industrial processes (e.g. aluminum smelting or fertilizer manufacture from natural gas). Of the three buildings seem most ripe for greatly improved efficiency using the best of today's technology. Specifically, I'd like to see all levels of government impose building codes on themselves for their own buildings that have much higher requirements for insulation and building efficiency.

Building efficiency increases are best designed in before the buildings get constructed. Buildings last decades or even centuries. Every year that goes by without the usage of best energy efficiency practices for building construction leaves us with another year's worth of unoptimized housing stock that we'll be stuck with for decades to come. Governments should steer societies down the road of greater energy efficiency by imposing tough efficiency requirements on themselves. By designing government buildings to meet high energy efficiency objectives governments can save money, demonstrate what can is possible using existing technology, and provide incentives to develop more energy efficient building technologies.

As for houses and commercial buildings: For starters, how about local building codes that have a standardized set of several levels of energy efficiency where each building gets built and certified as meeting some level. Each house could get built to which ever level the builder or owner chooses. Then that level gets included in the title. When the house or apartment building or commercial building goes on the market it can have an energy efficiency rating revealed in ads and during inspections. Building efficiency information would serve a purpose similar to that of car fuel effiiciency ratings.

Suppose the oil peak comes sooner as Simmons expects. Oil can rise above substitute replacement costs but only temporarily. Also, economies will contract before driving oil to $200 per barrel. I expect oil shale, oil tar sands, wind, coal, and nuclear to substitute on different time scales. Suppose the oil peak pessimists are right. What's the worst we are in for?

By Randall Parker 2005 September 29 07:54 PM  Energy Policy
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2005 September 28 Wednesday
Hungary Could Make Half Million Flu Vaccine Doses Per Week

The length of a future dangerous influenza pandemic will be determned by the speed at which vaccines can be produced against the specific flu strain that emerges. For something like the H5N1 avian or bird flu speculative production of vaccines ahead of time might not help much because the bird flu virus is mutating a fair amount. Though vaccination against current strains would probably at least provide some degree of partial immunity and probably deserves more consideration than it is currently getting.

I'm going to start collecting information about vaccine production capacities around the world since those capacities will determine the length of a pandemic and therefore the number of lives lost and the size of the economic cost. Here's the first vaccine production capacity report I've found. Hungary could make a half million vaccine doses per week.

If a different strain of the virus becomes dangerous for humans, it would take Hungary eight weeks to produce the first 500,000 vaccines after receiving the virus from the WHO, and it could then make another half a million portions per week.

That puts their yearly capacity at about 25 million. One wonders how much they could scale up production during an emergency and how long the scaling up would take to implement.

I'd like to know whether the Hungarians are using a new type of vaccine production technology. The bulk of flu vaccine production today is done using fertilized chicken eggs and takes months. Are the Hungarians saying they can produce a half million doses each week? Or are they saying they can put a half million doses worth of fertilized chicken eggs into the process each week with the results coming out two or three or four months later?

I'd also like to know whether the report from Hungary assumes a vaccine dose size based on the newness of H5N1 in humans. A completely new strain of influenza requires a larger vaccine dose. I've previously read that new strains require double the dose and hence all influenza vaccine production capacity figures have to be reduced by a factor of 2 when discussing bird flu. Chris Spence, who writes an avian flu blog showed up on in the comments of one of my previous posts and painted an even bleaker picture of the dose size needed to handle H5N1 bird flu in humans.

The story with vaccine development is even worse. The current vaccine being tested and developed and in the U.S. based on the avian version of the virus (avian -> human, rather than human -> human) requires a very large dosage rate to create an immune response. Based on early testing, to create an immune response, a dosage had to be given of 90uL, rather then the normal vaccine level of 15uL. In addition, because we have no natural immunity to this virus, we need to have two vaccines given, a month apart, for a total dosage of 180 uL (90uL X 2). This reflects a total required dosage of 180uL which is 12 times the normal dosage. Unless studies using Adjutives and other methods to reduce the required dosage prove successful, our reported production capacity for flu vaccine in the U.S. of 90 million annual doses, is actually only a capacity of 7.5 million doses (vs a population of roughly 296 million or a 2.5% coverage rate). Add this to the likely low effectiveness of the vaccine (it is being produced based on the current strain directly from birds - the pandemic strain that spreads from humans to humans is likely to be significantly different), the effectiveness of the current vaccine may only be 20 - 40% effective (no one knows until the strain breaks out, but based on prior vaccines that were a poor match to the final virus). The world wide vaccine production capacity is currently 300 million doses, or 25 million at this higher dosage rate. With a world wide population of 6.45 billion. This would only cover 0.4% of the worlds population. Not very encouraging news.

Is the H5N1 vaccine production situation really that bleak?

What vaccine dosage size would be needed in an H5N1 pandemic? Also, are any new vaccine production technologies far enough along to provide hope for more rapid scaling up of vaccine production? Also, how rapidly could conventional influenza vaccine production technology be scaled up?

By Randall Parker 2005 September 28 08:17 PM  Pandemic Vaccines
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2005 September 27 Tuesday
Dogs Face Deadly H3N8 Influenza From Horses

As humans face the growing possibility of a deadly flu pandemic our four legged friends demonstrate just how much they have in common with us. A deadly influenza strain that has jumped from horses to dogs is producing headlines similar to what we can expect to see when the next human influenza pandemic hits. The horse influenza H3N8 has mutated and jumped to dogs and killed greyhounds in 7 states.

The virus, which scientists say mutated from an influenza strain that affects horses, has killed racing greyhounds in seven states and has been found in shelters and pet shops in many places, including the New York suburbs, though the extent of its spread is unknown.


The virus is an H3N8 flu closely related to an equine flu strain. It is not related to typical human flus or to the H5N1 avian flu that has killed about 100 people in Asia.

Fido, Spot, and Rover are in danger. But humans can control the spread of a canine influenza outbreak a lot more easily than they can control a human outbreak. Humans travel greater distances and congregate together a lot more. While Rover is at home in the backyard waiting for people to come home and barking plaintively through the fence at dogs getting walked Johnnie is at grade school fighting with Billy, Bobby, Biff, and Brett on the playground and passing pathogens around in the process. His sister Jill is playing pattie cakes with Suzie and Taylor and passing along germs too. Johnnie's Dad is flying back from a business meeting in Singapore with regional manangers from Thailand, Canton, and Indonesia. Mom is at Pilates with a bunch of other women all touching the same floors, door knobs, and railings with their sweaty skin. Or maybe Mom is carrying on an affair with another law firm partner. Oh, and Mom's sister is waitressing at a busy packed restaurant to work through law school.

Humans have been exposed to this virus from horses for a long time with no reports of cross-overs into humans.

There is no evidence that it has spread to humans, or that it ever will. But at a Monday press conference, federal officials said they are monitoring the health of exposed dog owners -- because a virus that jumps species once could do it again.


"We have never been able to document a single case of human infection with this virus,'' said Ruben Donis, a researcher with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and principal author of the study.

But a virus that has managed to hop into dogs might now be closer to human compatibility. Anyone have scientific reasons to think this might be the case?

The CDC says don't panic even though it appears to kill 5% to 8% of dogs..

"We are going to monitor all cases of human exposure, but at this point there is no reason to panic," said Ruben Donis of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Donis noted that it has been known for about 40 years that the virus causes the flu in horses, with no reports of its infecting humans. Tests also indicate it is sensitive to antiviral drugs.


Although the mortality rate from the new flu virus remains unclear, so far it appears to kill 5 to 8 percent of infected dogs.

Well, what a human-centric attitude. Don't panic? Imagine a pandemic flu virus that killed 8% of humans was in the lose. Oh wait, the CDC would still say there is no reason to panic. But that only makes sense. There's never any reason to panic. Panic is a maladaptive response. But sometimes desperate measures are called for. Just stay level headed.

Since the dog flu is responsive to Tamiflu and amantadine I see this as yet another reason to stockpile Tamiflu. Fido's life might depend on it. What if a human pandemic breaks out, you stay totally healthy, but Fido comes down with a bad case of the flu? I can tell you right now that those human-centric public health authorities aren't going to let you get any Tamiflu for Spot or Scooby Do. No way. You have to stock up ahead of time if you want to protect your dog during a human flu pandemic.

Continue to walk your dog and let neighborhood packs congregate.

The C.D.C., which is tracking the disease, issued no official recommendations. But Dr. Crawford urged pet owners to continue to walk healthy dogs, visit dog runs, use boarding kennels and otherwise let animals congregate.

But, Dr. Crawford added, owners should "use common sense," including isolating dogs with any symptoms of respiratory disease for up to two weeks and alerting a veterinarian's office before taking in a sick dog for treatment.

But we need continued press coverage of this problem. Dog owners need to know when H3N8 comes to their neighborhoods.

Update: Dr. Brad Fenwick thinks the mortality rate is lower than Crawford's estimate.

Dr. Brad Fenwick, vice president for research at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, said he thinks mortality from this flu is even less than estimated by Crawford. If infected dogs are treated, mortality can be much lower, Fenwick said in a telephone interview.

From the CDC press conference: Dr. Ruben Donis:

So what about the implications for public health? We must keep in mind that this H3N8 equine influenza virus has been in horses for over 40 years. In all these years, we have never been able to document and single case of human infection with this virus. So that is something that I want everybody to take note of so to dispel, you know, major panic. That's not to say that there isn't any risk. We are going to monitor all cases of possible human exposure, but, this point, there is no reason to panic.

Dr. Cynda Crawford:

Only a minority of dogs, a small number of dogs, experience complications such as pneumonia, just like the humans infected with influenza, certain populations of humans are more prone to development of pneumonia. And it's a small number of humans compared to everyone else.

So that is the same with canine influenza virus. It's a small population of dogs that will develop complications, most likely bacterial complications and these dogs do need to be--have their treatment supervised by a veterinarian.

In addition, since not all dogs will show a clinical syndrome, showing that they have a respiratory infection, there is a minority that are infected with the virus, but will not show clinical signs to announce to everybody that “I am sick.” And it is very difficult to find these dogs in the dog population. And we're working on a more rapid means of identification.

If bacterial infection sets in as a complication that obviously can get treated by antibiotics. Also, Tamiflu and amantadine can slow the virus itself.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 27 02:05 PM  Dangers Natural Bio
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2005 September 25 Sunday
Folic Acid Slows Cognitive Decline With Age

To protect your brain from the slings and arrows of aging eat high folic acid foods such as greens and beans.

According to a recent report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, folate, a B vitamin found in foods like leafy green vegetables and citrus fruit, may protect against cognitive decline in older adults. The research was conducted by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

A team led by Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, director and professor of the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, studied a group of Boston-area men who were members of the ongoing Normative Aging Study (NAS). Tucker and her colleagues found that men who obtained more folate in their diets showed significantly less of a decline in verbal fluency skills over the course of three years than did men with lower dietary folate intake.

High folate levels, both in the diet and in the blood, also appeared to be protective against declines in another category of cognitive skills known as spatial copying. To test this, the 50- to 85-year-old study participants were asked to copy various shapes and figures, and their drawings were assessed for accuracy. "The men took a series of cognitive tests at the beginning of the study period and then repeated those tests three years later," explained Tucker. "We compared their first and second scores, reviewed their responses to dietary questionnaires, and took blood samples in order to see if nutrient levels in the diet and the blood were related to changes in cognitive performance."

In an earlier study with the same NAS group, which corroborated the findings of other investigators, the Tufts research team observed that high homocysteine--a known blood marker of cardiovascular disease risk--was associated with lower cognitive test scores.

Since folate supplementation can help reduce blood levels of homocysteine, it was thought that this might explain folate's beneficial effects. However, in the current study, the effects of folate were independent of its impact on homocysteine, which turned out to be more strongly associated with tests of memory.

"Unlike our prior work with this population, in which we observed an association between low folate levels and lower cognitive test scores at one point in time, this study looks at the effects of these nutrients over time." Tucker says, "That is an important step in establishing causality."

So low folic acid (a.k.a. folate) causes faster general cognitive decline but high homocysteine causes faster memory decline. Well, vitamins B-12 and B-6 also help keep down homocysteine. A lot of old people have a diminished capacity to absorb B-12. and some even need periodic B-12 shots. High homocysteine is also strongly suspected as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The journal article for this report:

Tucker KL, Qiao N, Scott T, Rosenberg I, Spiro A, III. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005; 82: 627. "High homocysteine and low B vitamins predict cognitive decline in aging men: the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study."

By Randall Parker 2005 September 25 01:49 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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Couples Too Busy For Sex Opt For IVF

An article in the Daily Telegraph reports on women who are too busy for sex who opt for in vitro fertilization (IVF) to start pregnancies.

Wealthy career women in their 30s and early 40s, some of whom have given up regular sex altogether, are turning to "medicalised conception" - despite being fertile and long before they have exhausted the possibility of a natural conception.

People want everything now.

Emma Cannon, who runs the fertility programme at Westover House, said: "I have patients who diary sex in. When the they don't fall pregnant they panic and think they need IVF.

"People want everything now. If they can't have a baby now, they want IVF. They think it's no different from putting your name down for a handbag. Some people are horrified by the idea that they have to have sex two to three times a week. About 10 per cent of people I see don't have time to have sex. It's usually when you have two professionals who are based in the city and are very busy.

In some cases one member of the couple works away from home and they only see each other on weekends.

I'd like to know what percentage of the women doing this are using sperm bank sperm. I've made the argument that once DNA sequencing becomes cheap women will have much greater incentive to use sperm bank sperm to start pregnancies. Why? Greater satisfaction with the resulting child. By choosing among a much larger set of men for sperm that they could not get as husbands women will be able to get DNA for their pregnancies that satisfies many more of the preferences they have for their offspring in terms of hair color, eye color, facial shape, physical build, personality, behavioral tendencies, risk for diseases, and intelligence.

Women who are willing to separate sex from reproduction and who also are willing to separate having a marriage from reproduction are prime candidates in the future for the use of sperm donors to start pregnancies. Those women who opt for the advantages of DNA tested donor sperm will make the first big step toward human genetic optimization. After that step comes genetic engineering techniques done to sperm, eggs, and embryos which will usher in a still more rapid rate of change to the human gene pool.

So when will a substantial number of women start opting for genetically tested sperm? Probably within 5 years of very cheap DNA testing. Once each person can have their entire genome tested for, say, $100 then the significance of most genetic variations will be identified within a few years and then the sperm banks will be able to offer much more detailed genetic profiles of donors. This information will greatly enhance the perceived advantages of some donors and will also lead to more aggressive measures to seek out donors with the most wanted genetic characteristics. Sperm banks will compete on the basis of their ability to supply the most number of genetic preferences that each woman customer specifies.

Update: Someone asks in the comments how can people who do not have time for sex find time to raise a child? My guess is that for the higher income types who can't find the time for sex nannies are pretty much de rigueur.

We also see here an obvious market for artificial wombs. Many women who can't be bothered to have sex to get pregnant will probably want avoid slowing down for a pregnancy. Avoid the need to shop for maternity clothes. Avoid bladder problems and stretch marks. Avoid the need to go on a strict diet. The advantages are too numerous to pass up. Plus, the actual birth process even interrupts attempts to keep up business negotiations on cell phones. Can't have that.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 25 11:56 AM  Bioethics Reproduction
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2005 September 22 Thursday
Biomedical Research Funding In United States Doubles In 10 Years

Public and private funding for biomedical research in the United States both doubled from 1994 to 2003.

From 1994 to 2003, total funding for biomedical research in the U.S. doubled to $94.3 billion, with industry providing 57 percent of the funding and the National Institutes of Health providing 28 percent, according to a study in the September 21 issue of JAMA, a theme issue on medical research.

The amount from private sources is much larger than I expected.

Lead author Hamilton Moses III, M.D., of the Alerion Institute, North Garden, Va., presented the findings of the study today at a JAMA media briefing on medical research.

Few comprehensive analyses of the sources of financial support of biomedical research and uses of these funds have been available, according to background information in the article. This results in inadequate information on which to base investment decisions and can create a barrier to judging the value of research to society. Previous articles have examined specific sectors, but few have done so comprehensively.

Dr. Moses and colleagues conducted a study to determine the level and trend from 1994 to 2004 of basic, translational (the application of knowledge of basic science research to clinical care), and clinical U.S. biomedical research support from the major sponsors of this research: (1) federal government, (2) state and local governments, (3) private not-for-profit entities including foundations, and (4) industry. The researchers compiled publicly available data for federal, state, and local governments; foundations; charities; universities; and industry. Proprietary (by subscription but openly available) databases were used to supplement public sources.

It is amazing that after such a huge increase across the board that the relative size of private and public contributions should have emerged unchanged.

The researchers found that biomedical research funding increased from $37.1 billion in 1994 to $94.3 billion in 2003 and doubled when adjusted for inflation. Principal research sponsors in 2003 were industry (57 percent) and the National Institutes of Health (28 percent). Relative proportions from all public and private sources did not change. Industry sponsorship of clinical trials increased from $4.0 to $14.2 billion (in real terms) while federal proportions devoted to basic and applied research were unchanged.

I am not surprised that diagnostics and therapeutic devices R&#amp;D yielded the best returns. Drug development returns have been declining. Diagnostic devices are taking off in in part because of a shift toward miniaturized devices. Diagnostics are going to follow in the path of computer chips with smaller devices becoming orders of magnitude more powerful and at the same time orders of magnitude cheaper.

The United States spent an estimated 5.6 percent of its total health expenditures on biomedical research, more than any other country, but less than 0.1 percent for health services research. From an economic perspective, biotechnology and medical device companies were most productive, as measured by new diagnostic and therapeutic devices per dollar of research and development cost. Productivity declined for new pharmaceuticals.

I recently saw a panel discussion at UC Santa Barbara with a venture capitalist and a couple of patent lawyers. The VC commented that just within the last year diagnostics have become a very hot area for VC funding. Makes sense. Diagnostics are going to take off because the demand is huge and biotech devices are becoming like computer devices: very small scale and automated.I was disappointed that it took them this long to figure out that diagnostics are a hot area. But better late than never.

Because next generation diagnostic technologies are going to be increasingly based on microfluidics, nanosensors, and other small scale devices I expect the development of diagnostics to do more to accelerate the pace of biotechnology than the development of drugs. Even though drug development gets a lot more money most of that money flows to clinicians to conduct trials, people who do regulatory filings, and other work that does not develop new enabling technologies. The increased interest of VCs in diagnostics therefore is very good news.

The huge increase in medical devices funding pushes a lot more money toward enabling technologies that will accelerate the rate of biotechnological advance.

The NIH is by far the largest federal funder of biomedical research. Adjusted for inflation, NIH obligations nearly doubled (in 2003 dollars) from $13.4 billion in 1994 to $26.4 billion in 2003. Private support for biomedical research, adjusted for inflation, increased 36 percent from $1.8 billion in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2003 (in 2003 dollars). Private support for biomedical research comes primarily from foundations, voluntary health organizations, and the free-standing research institutes.

Industry funding from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device firms increased 102 percent from $26.8 billion in 1994 to an inflation-adjusted $54.1 billion in 2003 (in 2003 dollars). The growth rate (inflation adjusted) for the medical device sector (264 percent) exceeded that for either the pharmaceutical (89 percent) or biotechnology (98 percent) sectors. The proportion of biomedical research support coming from industry sources remained relatively constant and was 56 percent for 1994 and 58 percent for 2003.

So it turns out there was a shift toward non-governmental funding sources. Given that the Bush Administration is not increasing the budget of the NIH as fast as inflation I'm expecting the private portion to continue to grow relative to the public portion.

Government funding ought to shift away from specific diseases and shift toward the development of basic capabilities such as better instrumentation, microfluidics, nanosensors, and other work on technologies that improve the ability to automatically measure and manipulate biomolecules and biological systems.

The federal government and foundations spent $1.4 billion on health policy and health services research in 2002. Federal funding for health services research came primarily from the NIH ($787 million in fiscal year 2002) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ($299 million in fiscal year 2002). The sum of federal and foundation spending for health services research in 2002 was an estimated 1.5 percent of biomedical research funding.

"The doubling over a decade of total spending by U.S. public and private research sponsors in real, inflation-adjusted, terms should be reassuring to those who fear that financial sponsorship for research is not paralleling scientific opportunity. It is also reassuring that spending on health and biomedical science research by companies and government is not following reductions in research and development in other industries or reduced support for other areas of science. By comparison, the low proportion of spending on health services research is especially notable, since it is the main tool available to evaluate the clinical benefit of technology," the authors write.

The increased money for drug research has not helped.

"Barriers to the discovery of new drugs have received much attention over the past decade. Despite the doubling of biomedical research funding and the shift toward clinical research by pharmaceutical companies, the number of new molecular entities approved by the FDA has fallen. For example, from 1994 to 1997, the number of new molecular entities approved averaged 35.5 per year. From 2001 to 2004, the number of new molecular entities averaged 23.3 per year. As a consequence, pharmaceutical productivity decreased over the last 10 years, and it is lagging that of the biotechnology and device sectors," the researchers write.

"We believe a major factor in decreasing productivity stems from pharmaceutical companies' frequent determination that compounds approvable from a regulatory standpoint are not worth bringing to the market because the intensity of competition is so high that it is not worth challenging existing drugs that are safe and effective. This highlights the need to invest in clinical areas with few effective treatments and for which novel mechanisms or entirely new classes of drugs are possible. The willingness of biotechnology companies to do this may, in part, account for their greater relative productivity."

My own take on drug research is that it is becoming yesterday's approach to medical treatments. Most remaining health problems can not be solved with drugs. We need cell therapies and gene therapies much more than new chemical molecule drugs. Most diseases of old age and the very process of aging will be cured by gene and cell therapies and not by drugs. Though new useful drugs will still be found.

"For all sponsors, the challenge is patience. Biomedical research is an inherently high risk and lengthy process. It would be helpful to remind those making financial decisions that the promise of earlier advances in the basic understanding of physiology in the 1920s and 1930s, or of biochemistry and microbiology in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, took decades to unfold."

I do not buy this argument about pressing challenges.

"Enhancing research productivity and evaluation of benefit are pressing challenges, requiring (1) more effective translation of basic scientific knowledge to clinical application; (2) critical appraisal of rapidly moving scientific areas to guide investment where clinical need is greatest, not only where commercial opportunity is currently perceived; and (3) more specific information about sources and uses of research funds than is generally available to allow informed investment decisions. Responsibility falls on industry, government, and foundations to bring these changes about with a longer-term view of research value," the authors conclude.

The big pressing challenges are nuch more ambitious and require boldness that can't be captured in conventional economic analyses:

  • Develop the ability to grow large replacement parts for the human body.
  • Develop the ability to make cell therapies that will replace on a finer granularity scale.
  • Develop the ability to send in new DNA programming (gene therapy) into cells to instruct them how to repair themselves.
  • Develop the ability to "take out the trash" to remove junk that accumulates both inside and outside cells.
  • Develop much better microfluidics and micro-instrumentation that can cheaply perform analyses and manipulations on cells and cell components such as DNA sequencing and measurement of intracellular and extracellular biochemical compounds.

We need all the enabling technologies for implementing Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).

By Randall Parker 2005 September 22 11:45 AM  Policy Science
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2005 September 20 Tuesday
Comparing National Tamiflu Stockpiles Against Flu Pandemic Threat

Roche's Tamiflu (a.k.a. oseltamivir phosphate) is the most effective known drug against influenza infections. Should an H5N1 avian influenza strain mutate into a form capable of causing a large deadly human pandemic then for those infected Tamiflu might be the only drug that will reduce the odds of dying. With that in mind I've decided to start looking for information on national Tamiflu stockpiles around the world. If anyone comes across information about countries buying large amounts of Tamiflu let me know what you find.

United States Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says the US government plans to build up a 20 million dose stockpile of Tamiflu.

Leavitt said the federal government was looking to stockpile 20 million doses of a bird flu vaccine and another 20 million doses of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication to treat the illness.

While those talks with Roche are still underway currently the United States has just 2.3 million Tamiflu doses available.

The United States has a stock pile of 2.3 million doses of Tamiflu, enough for just one percent of its population.

The United States currently has a population of 295.734 million. So the current 2.3 million dose stockpile provides only 0.778% coverage, not even a whole percentage point. Once the stockpile reaches 20 million doses (and that probably will take years the coverage level will still be just 6.7% and probably lower than that due to population growth. Plus, in event of an outbreak I expect a lot of Mexicans to cross into the United States illegally seeking treatment. This'll accelerate the spread of the virus as well as placing a still heavier burden on completely overwhelmed hospitals.

New Zealand is in much better shape.

The ministry has also ordered 835,000 courses of Tamiflu, the last of which should arrive by the end of the year.

New Zealand has 4.035 million people. So New Zealand will soon have a 20.7% coverage rate. Plus, New Zealand can much more easily cut itself off from the rest of the world in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Best stockpile for Tamiflu I've come across so far is in France with 14 million doses expected to be in stock by the end of 2005. With about 60.656 million people France will soon have an impressive 23.8% coverage rate.

Britain will eventually surpass France in coverage rate but not for a couple of years (and perhaps not soon enough).

The UK government said on Tuesday it had ordered 14.6 million doses, enough for one in four of the population.


The UK order is worth around $384.4 million and the doses will be delivered over two years. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that potential U.S. and European sales could total $3.9 billion.

With 60.441 million people the UK coverage level will eventually reach 24.2 %. But that will not happen for two years. Whereas the French will achieve their 23.8% coverage rate by the end of 2005. The French are clearly most ready and will continue to be most ready for quite some time.

What is an adequate coverage rate? It depends on what percentage of the population gets a pandemic flu strain. If the total infected can be kept to 20% or less (and that seems achievable in industrialized countries) then 20% coverage is adequate.

Your best bet during a highly lethal pandemic is to isolate yourself. Home school your kids. Try to get work you can do from home. Shop rarely, buy lots of stuff when you do shop, and shop at off hours when few are in stores. Better yet, get delivery. Also, stockpile your own Tamiflu and get face masks, preferably longer last face masks such as the 3M N100.

If anyone comes across reports on national Tamiflu stockpiles and order levels let me know.

Update: Australia has 3.5 million doses of Tamiflu stockpiled. (and that link has an excellent discussion of what a severe pandemic would be like including an image of a deserted NYC Grand Central Station).

Officials in Australia, however, have 3.5 million courses of treatment, and in Great Britain, officials say they have ordered enough to cover a quarter of their population.

Australia has 20.09 million people. So Australia's coverage comes it at a very respectable 17.42%. Australia already has 3 times better Tamiflu coverage than the US government hopes to achieve in a couple of years.

Update II: Indonesia has made only token preparations to handle a pandemic.

The WHO was also working with the government to source new stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu from India to bolster local stocks, he said.

"It's not very much, it's rather puny. They definitely need some more," Petersen said, adding that stocks being rushed from India were less than 1,000 doses.

Tamiflu is an anti-viral tablet that can help against infection. Several companies are working on a vaccine, but tests are not expected to begin until later this year.

Supari said Indonesia had 10,000 Tamiflu tablets.

I suspect Supari meant "doses" and not "tablets". Indonesia has 242 million people. Indonesia typifies the vast bulk of the countries in the world: Should the pandemic come I expect most countries will fail totally in attempts to control the pandemic. Order will break down in many countries as soldiers and police abandon their posts in order to avoid exposure to the virus.

Update III: The World Health Organization will not have a few million Tamiflu doses until mid 2006.

According to public health officials, Southeast Asia needs to stockpile antiviral drugs to treat at least 3 million people if the deadly H5N1 virus mutates to one that could explode into a pandemic.

But meeting this demand is already proving to be a problem due to limited stocks for the developing world. The World Health Organization (WHO) is due to receive 1 million doses from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, the producer of Tamiflu, by the end of this year and another 2 million by mid-2006.

Currently the WHO has only 80,000 Tamiflu doses and is getting more doses only because Roche is donating the three million doses.

WHO currently maintains a stockpile of about 80,000 treatment courses of oseltamivir, known commercially as Tamiflu, Omi told reporters outside a WHO conference in New Caledonia.

Last month, Swiss-based Roche Holding AG announced it would donate 3 million treatment courses of Tamiflu to a WHO-managed stockpile, but the first million courses will not be ready until early next year and the remaining 2 million will not be ready until mid-2006.

Also see the comments where one commenter claims a double dose of Tamiflu is more effective than a single dose. If this is true then you folks who are stockpiling for your families ought to double your orders.

Update IV: Thailand and Singapore Tamiflu coverage reported here:

Until this week, Indonesian doctors had only a few hundred courses of the anti-viral drug oseltamivir. Sold by pharmaceutical giant Roche as Tamiflu, the drug is widely seen as one of the few effective options to treat the H5N1 virus in humans and, potentially, contain an outbreak.

Even after 10,000 courses ordered through the World Health Organisation are added this week, supplies for the country of 220m will be dwarfed by the far wealthier nearby island-state of Singapore, which is assembling a stockpile of 350,000 courses for 4.2m citizens - or the 700,000 Thailand has now and the 3m it wants by 2007.

Singapore is trying to achieve 8.3% coverage. But it is not clear when they will do so. Thailand has 65.444 million people and so their 700,000 doses count up to 1.07 coverage. They might achieve 4.6% coverage some time in 2007 which would still be very inadequate.

Update V: A US Tamiflu production plant will not be ready before the end of 2006.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stockpiled enough to treat 2.3 million people. Hoffmann-La Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that is the world's sole supplier of the drug, has pledged to build a U.S. plant to produce Tamiflu before the year's end, but the drug supplies from that plant would not be ready until late 2006.

The later a pandemic comes the better the shape we'll be in to handle it.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 20 05:36 PM  Pandemic Prepare Government
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Tony Blair Wants Technological Advances To Reduce CO2 Emissions

Tony Blair moves closer to FuturePundit on energy policy.

The second thing, though, is that I think – and I would say probably I’m changing my thinking about this in the past two or three years. I think if we are going to get action on this, we have got to start from the brutal honesty about the politics of how we deal with it. The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem. What countries are prepared to do is to try to work together cooperatively to deal with this problem in a way that allows us to develop the science and technology in a beneficial way.

Now, I don’t think all of the answers lie in just – in developing the science and technology, but I do think there is no way we are going to tackle this problem unless we develop the science and technology capable of doing it.

Blair is beginning to sound realistic on energy policy. National governments all over the world that signed onto the Kyoto Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have failed to follow through.

Canada leads the laggards with emissions growth at 20 percent from 1990 although it has committed to a 6 percent reduction by 2012.

Japan's emissions are up 12 percent and it has to cut them also by six, while New Zealand must show zero growth and is currently up 21 percent.

The European Union as a whole is doing better, with a 2.9 percent fall toward a 2012 target of minus 8 percent. But there are problems, for example, in Italy, which is 8 percent higher and must go 8 percent lower.

Japan would be further from Kyoto compliance if it didn't spend the 1990s in economic stagnation. Canada, enjoying better economic growth, is predictably further from compliance.

I do not see how the EU can meet their Kyoto goals. Large tax increases on energy are politically unpalatable. The European countries need to increase energy efficiency much more rapidly than their economies grow so that energy use can drop even as economic output increases. They've already gone after much of the lower lying fruit. It gets harder to squeeze out even more efficiency. Europe already has higher fuel taxes than the United States and so fuel taxes there would have to be raised even higher still to provide greater incentives for lower energy usage. I do not see that as in the cards.

Even where higher levels of energy efficiency are theoretically possible (e.g. in insulation of buildings) the problem is that the efficiency can only be realized by replacing large amounts of capital and housing stock with newer and more efficient designs. Efficiency gains from such measures cost too much to implement quickly and take decades to achieve.

Part of the EU's energy efficiency gain came from the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Less efficient communist capital equipment that used more energy to get jobs done was replaced by more efficient capital equipment from the rest of the world. But, again, the easier parts of this have already been done as well.

Considering all these factors my guess is that Europe seems very unlikely to meet its Kyoto goals. Kyoto compliance might even get worse between now and 2012 due to economic growth increasing the demand for energy. Similarly, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan aren't going to get near treaty compliance.

Director of Canada's Climate Change Bureau Alex Manson lays part of the blame for Canada's non-compliance on the United States which has experienced only 12% growth in CO2 emissions versus 20% for Canada (and I trust readers are good enough at math to see the obvious problem with this argument).

He said Canada picked up the pace against emissions in 2003, but it has been hurt by the fact that its biggest trading partner -- the United States -- withdrew from Kyoto in 2001. U.S. emissions are 12 percent up since 1990.

Canada has begun to take some steps toward reducing CO2 emissions with an agreement reached with car companies to raise fuel efficiency of new vehicles.

Switzerland has so far reduced CO2 emissions only 4% versus its stated 10% reduction goal.

While the Reuters article above puts the US green house gases increase at 12% since 1990 the EPA puts the increase at 20% from 1990 to 2003. From that Green Car Congress link:

Although overall net GHG emissions have increased more than 20% during the last 15 years, the economy as represented by the GDP grew 46%. The good news is that the economy appears increasingly less emissions-intense. The bad news is that despite the increased efficiency, we are still increasing our emissions even on a net basis year-to-year.

That gap between economic growth and energy growth represents a very large increase in US energy efficiency since 1990. Much of the difference in CO2 emissions between Europe and the United States since 1990 can be chalked up to faster economic growth and population growth in the United States. The US economy has become steadily more energy efficient as measured by a rising ratio of inflation-adjusted GDP per unit of energy consumed. But the economic growth rate has risen even faster than the rate of increase in energy efficiency. So total energy usage has increased and this has driven the increase in CO2 emissions in the United States.

Technologies that increase energy efficiency will lower the cost of the energy component of production and therefore cause faster economic growth. As a result, part of energy efficiency gains inevitably get lost as per capita GDP rises and people buy more goods and services.

Aside: If anyone can point to a source for comparative United States and EU-15 total economic growth from 1990 to 2003 or 2004 please post in the comments or email me. I'd like to get a better sense of how much the energy use difference between the US and EU is due to the difference in total economic growth.

Part of the US growth in energy demand is a consequence of an overall increase in worker productivity. An overall productivity gap has opened between workers in the United States and the core more industrialized EU states.

On average, the productivity level of the EU-15 was at 92% of the U.S. level in 2004, down from 99% in 2000 and 100% in 1995. This decline reflects both the relatively slow pace of European productivity growth and the acceleration of U.S. productivity gains after 1995. Still, six European countries—Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands—exhibit higher productivity levels than the U.S. in 2004.

While the productivity gap between the EU-15 and the U.S. is 8 percentage points in 2004, the per capita income gap is 28 percentage points. With the exception of Luxembourg, no European country has turned this relatively high productivity into a per capita income higher than the U.S. This is because EU countries have a smaller fraction of the population employed than the U.S., and those that are employed generally work fewer hours.

From 2000-2004, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product growth came primarily from increased labor productivity (2.9%). Hours worked for this period fell -.4%, resulting in GDP growth of 2.5% for 2000 to 2004. During this period, the EU-15 showed GDP growth of only 1.4% with productivity growth at 1% and hours worked at .4%.

The more rapid economic growth in the United States is due to both more rapidly rising productivity and a rise in hours worked.

A closer examination of the proximate sources of change in total GDP growth after 1995 shows that while trend labour productivity accelerated in the United States, it slowed in the European Union and Japan, resulting in a convergence of productivity growth rates across the three major economies (Figure V.1). In the case of the European Union, the impact on GDP growth from the slowdown in productivity per hour was partly offset by an increase in employment growth. Despite such improvement in labour market performance, even faster employment growth in the United States accounted for most of the differences in growth in GDP per capita between the two economies. Japan is the only country having faced a deceleration in both productivity and labour resource utilisation. Conversely, only a few countries (Canada, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Greece) enjoyed a clear improvement in both sources of growth in GDP per capita after 1995.

The only way to substantially reduce CO2 emissions is to develop energy technologies that obsolesce fossil fuels. Those energy technologies are coming eventually. People who want those technologies to come sooner (whether to avoid global warming or get cleaner air to breathe or to lower total energy costs) ought to support accelerated development of nuclear and photovoltaic energy technologies.

The neat thing about technological advances is that once the advances are made they start paying back and continue to pay back for years and decades to come. The sooner the advances get made the sooner the payback starts. Global warming worries aside, advances in non-fossil fuel energy technologies such as nuclear, photovoltaics, and wind will pay back by lowering energy costs and enabling greater economic growth with cleaner air as a side effect. I want the advances sooner because I want the many benefits sooner.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 20 03:21 PM  Energy Policy
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Human Neural Stem Cells Partially Cure Mouse Paralysis

UC Irvine researchers used human neural stem cells to partially restore movement ability in mice with spinal cord injuries.

Researchers at the UC Irvine Reeve-Irvine Research Center have used adult human neural stem cells to successfully regenerate damaged spinal cord tissue and improve mobility in mice.

The findings point to the promise of using this type of cells for possible therapies to help humans who have spinal cord injuries. Study results appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

In their study, Brian Cummings, Aileen Anderson and colleagues injected adult human neural stem cells into mice with limited mobility due to spinal cord injuries. These transplanted stem cells differentiated into new oligodendrocyte cells that restored myelin around damaged mouse axons. Additionally, transplanted cells differentiated into new neurons that formed synaptic connections with mouse neurons.

The ability to grow new myelin sheath would also be very beneficial to patients suffering from multiple sclerosis.

Myelin is the biological insulation for nerve fibers that is critical for maintenance of electrical conduction in the central nervous system. When myelin is stripped away through disease or injury, sensory and motor deficiencies result and, in some cases, paralysis can occur. Previous Reeve-Irvine research has shown that transplantation of oligodendrocyte precursors derived from human embryonic stem cells restores mobility in rats.

“We set out to find whether these cells would be able to respond to the injury in an appropriate and beneficial way on their own,” Cummings said. “We were excited to find that the cells responded to the damage by making appropriate new cells that could assist in repair. This study supports the possibility that formation of new myelin and new neurons may contribute to recovery.”

Coordinated walking ability was restored.

Mice that received human neural stem cells nine days after spinal cord injury showed improvements in walking ability compared to mice that received either no cells or a control transplant of human fibroblast cells (which cannot differentiate into nervous system cells). Further experiments showed behavioral improvements after either moderate or more severe injuries, with the treated mice being able to step using the hind paws and coordinate stepping between paws whereas control mice were uncoordinated.

The cells survived and improved walking ability for at least four months after transplantation. Sixteen weeks after transplantation, the engrafted human cells were killed using diphtheria toxin (which is only toxic to the human cells, not the mouse). This procedure abolished the improvements in walking, suggesting that the human neural stem cells were the vital catalysts for the maintained mobility.

The lack of need to condition the stem cells to become specific types of cells makes this a simpler approach to apply than attempts which used less differentiated human embryonic stem cells.

This study differs from previous work using human embryonic stem cells in spinal cord injury because the human neural stem cells were not coaxed into becoming specific cell types before transplantation.

If human cells can improve movement in mice the likelihood that these same cells would deliver a similar benefit in humans with spinal cord injuries seems high.

The British newspaper The Guardian reports that the stem cells came from neural tissue of aborted fetuses.

Neuroscientist Aileen Anderson and her team at the Reeve-Irvine Research Centre at the University of California, Irvine, used stem cells taken from the neural tissue of aborted foetuses. When injected into the body, they can develop into any type of nervous tissue.

Can anyone confirm this? Neither the UC Irvine press release or the press release of the company that supplied the stem cells (see below) make any mention of this fact.

The company that supplied the stem cells to the UC Irvine researchers is Palo Alto California based StemCells Inc. The StemCells Inc. press release mentions that the Christopher Reeve Foundation was one of the sources of funds for this research (bringing to mind that South Park episode where Reeve's character ate fetal brains and became extremely vigorous as a result)

PALO ALTO, Calif., (September 19, 2005) – StemCells, Inc. (Nasdaq: STEM) today announced results of a published study that demonstrates that the Company’s proprietary human neural stem cells restore the lost motor function of mice with spinal cord injuries. This study is also the first to show the causal relationship between transplanted human neural stem cells and long-term recovery of motor function: The human neural cells were subsequently ablated in some of the mice, and their improved motor function was lost.

The study was conducted by Drs. Aileen Anderson, Brian Cummings and their colleagues from the Reeve Irvine Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. It will be published today online in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), and will appear in the September 27, 2005 print issue. The study was funded in part by a Small Business Innovative Research Grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to StemCells, Inc. Support was also provided by the Christopher Reeve Foundation through its International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury.

The CEO of StemCells Inc. says these are still early days. But what obstacle exists for trying out these stem cells in paralyzed humans right now?

“While we are early in our quest to find a stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury, the design of this study raises the bar for evaluating experimental cell-based therapies in this extremely debilitating medical condition,” said Martin McGlynn, President and Chief Executive Officer of StemCells. “The study clearly demonstrates that our proprietary human neural stem cells make functional new neural cells, and are responsible for the restoration of hind limb function in this animal model of spinal cord injury.”

In the StemCells Inc. press release they refer to the cells as having been isolated from "normal brain tissue".

StemCells, Inc. is a development stage biotechnology company focused on the discovery, development and commercialization of stem cell-based therapies to treat diseases of the nervous system, liver and pancreas. The Company’s stem cell programs seek to repair or repopulate neural or other tissue that has been damaged or lost as a result of disease or injury. StemCells is the first company to directly identify and isolate human neural stem cells from normal brain tissue. These stem cells are expandable into cell banks for therapeutic use, which demonstrates the feasibility of using normal, non-genetically modified cells as cell-based therapies. StemCells is the only publicly traded company solely focused on stem cell research and development and has more than 40 U.S. and 100 non-U.S. patents, as well as 100 patent applications pending worldwide.

On one hand abortion is already legal in the United States and has been for decades. So use of neural stem cell tissue from aborted fetuses does not result in more fetuses getting killed. On the other hand, abortion opponents will surely get angry at the idea of remains of aborted fetuses getting used to develop medical treatments.

Put aside the ethical considerations. Think about the medical implications. The scientific lesson here is that types of neural stem cells already exist that can at least partially and substantially repair spinal cord injury. The delivery of those cells does not require creation of a futuristic high tech artificial biochemical environment in the spine (say complex chemical gradients varying through time) or an elaborate system for controlling the migration and differentiation of the cells. Given the development of the right sort of neural stem cells a substantial amount of spinal repair becomes possible pretty easily.

The technical point here, even for abortion opponents, is that if a way to make the right sorts of neural stem cells can be found then stem cells can fix damaged spines. Granted, some people would prefer a different way to make these stem cells. I expect other ways will be found. But once stem cells can get programmed to the right epigenetic state then the cells will repair spinal cords. That's good news.

The full article (PDF format) is open access and you can start with the abstract.

Update: Be sure to read the comments on this post. Garson Poole points to the use of premature births that die as a source of cells. This neatly sidesteps opposition to abortion. The use of organs from people who unexpectedly die is morally accepted across the political spectrum (with the exception of perhaps a couple of religious demoninations that do not oppose this choice by others). So why not the same with premature births?

By Randall Parker 2005 September 20 12:05 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2005 September 19 Monday
United States Orders French Bird Flu Vaccine While Indonesian Cases Suspected

George W. Bush has decided to order an experimental French avian flu vaccine.

At the United Nations on Wednesday, President Bush proposed an "international partnership" to combat the disease, and the United States announced last week that it had placed orders for $100 million worth of a promising but technically unlicensed vaccine that is under development by the French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis.

If it was up to me I'd take money away from Bush's massive Gulf Coast mini-Great Society boondoggle (why subsidize rebuilding in a flood plain where hurricanes will hit again and again?) and use it instead to develop better influenza vaccine production technologies and other measures to protect against the inevitable next influenza pandemic. Why subsidize the movement of people back into harm's way when we could instead fund research that would remove people from harm's way? But my knee jerk use of rational analysis keeps placing me outside of the emotional mainstream.

We are overdue for the next big influenza pandemic and it is just a matter of time till the pandemic happens.

"We know we're overdue for an influenza pandemic strain, and we know it will occur, but we don't know when or even exactly what virus will cause it," said Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman. "It is possible that the virus won't be H5N1 at all or that this virus will change in a way so that the vaccine under development doesn't work against it."

Thompson added that government orders for unproven vaccines still are worthwhile because they provide incentives for companies to do vaccine development work against H5N1. That makes sense. The companies will be further up the learning curve on H5N1 and will also have more vaccine production facilities in place available to switch over to a different vaccine variant once the exact pandemic strain emerges.

The backdrop to these statements is the avian flu news from Indonesia. Indonesia has 4 dead from the H5N1 avian flu strain and birds all over the Indonesian islands have the flu.

The developments highlighted Indonesia's continuing struggle against bird flu, which is endemic in chicken flocks across the sprawling island nation and has killed four humans since July, the most recent being a 37-year-old woman who died nine days ago.

3 Indonesian children have suspected cases of H5N1 avian influenza.

Three Indonesian children are suspected of having been infected with bird flu, a health official said, while the Jakarta zoo remains closed over an outbreak of the disease.

'There are now three suspected cases of bird flu infection, all children,' said Sumardi, the health ministry's acting spokesman.

Unlike other (and rather poor) countries in the region Indonesia says it doesn't have the money to do massive culls of commercial poultry populations which have bird flu.

Apriyantono later told reporters his ministry had requested more funds to handle the outbreak, but said the government had little money to conduct a mass slaughter of poultry or birds.

"Depopulation will need a huge amount of funds. This year, we need more funds for avian influenza to do research, surveillance and selective depopulation."

The WHO would support recommendations by the World Organisation for Animal Health and by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for a mass cull in Indonesia, Petersen said.

I'd love to know what the cost of a huge domestic bird depopulation would cost in Indonesia. Suppose the US withdrew from Iraq and used some of the money against domestic avian flu in poor countries. How many weeks of fighting in Iraq would yield enough money to pay for a cull of infected birds in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos?

WHO regional director Shigeru Omi says poor Asian farmers are a weak link for stopping an avian flu pandemic.

The WHO regional director for Western Pacific, Shigeru Omni, said at the opening of a WHO conference in New Caledonia that poor Asian farmers are a weak link in the fight to contain the disease. He said these farmers are reluctant to report bird flu outbreaks because of a lack of financial incentives to do so.

WHO says countries should hold a mass culling when an outbreak occurs, but some nations refuse. Indonesia has launched a vaccination drive for poultry, but has carried out only limited culling because it lacks the money to compensate farmers.

When the pandemic comes it will cost industrialized countries trillions of dollars. Why not spend a small fraction of that up front to reduce the odds of the pandemic in the first place? As one of the B-52s women singers once sang "I'm just asking!".

World Health Organization (WHO) Indonesia country representative Georg Petersen says that farmers living in close proximity to their chickens makes the spread of avian flu to humans hard to control. At the same time an Indonesian government official says Indonesians should just accustom themselves to getting sick from H5N1 avian influenza.

``The problem with this country, as in many Asian countries is that a large portion of the chickens are raised by farmers in their backyard and even within the cities, people are raising chickens and this is very difficult to control,'' Petersen said.

Indonesians ``will have to be prepared to live together with bird flu, as it has with dengue,'' agriculture minister Anton Apriantono told reporters while visiting Pasar Cempaka Putih, a traditional market that sells live poultry in central Jakarta today. Dengue, which causes, fevers, rashes, headaches, muscle pain and sometimes death, is an annual occurrence in Indonesia.

Bottom line? Your own considerable future risk of getting killed by an H5N1 avian influenza pandemic comes from an attitude prevalent in Third World countries that lots of disease sicken and kill people so why get worked up about just one more infectious disease?

By Randall Parker 2005 September 19 02:06 PM  Dangers Natural Bio
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2005 September 18 Sunday
Gamblers Seen As Superstitious And Stimulus Cravers

A British study finds gamblers much more superstitious than non-gamblers.

Over 80% of UK bingo players surveyed were generally superstitious - some attributing lucky seats, lucky friends and lucky nights of the week to gambling success.

Just one-third of the larger UK population are thought to be superstitious - the most commonly reported behaviours being: avoiding walking under ladders, touching wood for good luck and throwing salt over shoulders.

Could training in statistics and physics reduce the belief in luck? My guess is those with lower aptitudes for math and physics are more likely to believe in luck. So better training probably would not help much. Future geneticallly engineered neural stem cell therapies for boosting IQ will probably reduce the desire to gamble though.

Another recent study found that alcoholics and gamblers are motivated by different kinds of emotions.

Tavares said that positive emotions and negative emotions are two separate, distinct and independent dimensions, possibly regulated by different brain systems. "We found that alcohol craving was based on the temperament factor responsible for negative emotions," he said. "This suggests that those individuals who are especially vulnerable to negative emotions are the ones who will miss alcohol the most when trying to abstain. Conversely, gambling craving correlated to the temperament factor responsible for positive emotions.

"This suggests that those individuals who naturally lack positive emotions and require intense stimuli to experience elation are the ones who will miss gambling the most when trying to abstain."

As I reported in another recent post fetal alcohol exposure in early pregnancy or during the full length of pregnancy in rhesus macaque monkeys resulted in macaques that had blunted responses to stimuli. Humans exposed to alcohol during fetal development and born with less ability to respond to stimuli might take up gambling as a source of more intense experiences. So alcohol abuse in one generation might lead to compulsive gambling in a successive generation.

If the need to experience an intense stimulus could be met by some other source of a stimulus would gambling compulsion be easier to break? How about putting gambling treatment centers next to amusement parks and taking the gamblers on roller coaster rides? The problem is that it is a lot easier and faster to log on to a gambling web site or do off-site betting on track races than to go to an amusement park. Most people do not live near roller coasters. Could video games provide the craved level of intense stimulation?

Gene therapies and neural stem cell therapies will eventually provide ways to supply neurons that reduce the need for the stimulus high that comes from gambling.

Technological advances are making gambling problems easier to develop (while producing lots of email and blog spam in the process).

Today more young people gamble once a week than smoke, drink or take drugs combined.

"Poker playing seems to have grown to the point where now you've got about 20% of young males, who are either in high school or in college playing poker with their friends on a weekly basis," says Dan Romer, who runs the Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Centre at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Of those at least a quarter of them would be exhibiting some form of problem gambling symptoms."

Human beings did not evolve to handle the types of artificial environments that technologies are producing. The range of technologies which humans are not adapted to handle keeps growing. Home methamphetamine labs and internet gambling web sites are just two manifestations of a larger problem: Humans find themselves in technological environments very unlike the environments for which they evolved.

Some humans are lucky enough to have combinations of alleles, embryonic environments, and childhood environments that make them still able to function well in the face of so many potentially harmful activities. Some can gamble occasionally without developing a compulsion to do so. Some can have a drink of alcohol without developing a need for it. Some feel great enough to see no temptation from cocaine or methamphetamine.

But others less lucky are caught up in a growing number of temptations which they are genetically and cognitively ill-suited to handle. The weakening of belief in religious codes that used to justify many restrictions on vices combined with liberal and libertarian views of human ability to exercise free will leave those with neurological vulnerabilities insufficiently defended against a proliferation of ways to develop compulsive, addictive, and destructive vices. Only the acceptance of a more biological view of human nature can restore some of the wisdom about vices lost in the decline of religious beliefs.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 18 12:52 PM  Brain Addiction
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2005 September 16 Friday
United States Premature Birth Rate Hits Record High

Bad news on the baby front.

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., SEPT. 8, 2005 – Nearly a half million American babies were born prematurely in a single year, according to a government report issued today, putting them at increased risk for death and disability.

Some 12.3 percent of all babies – 499,008 infants -- were born prematurely (less than 37 weeks gestation) in 2003, according to the report released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). That's up from 12.1 percent (or about 480,000 babies) in 2002 – and an increase of more than 30 percent since the government began tracking premature births in 1981. The prematurity rate was 9.4 in 1981; it has increased every year since then except for slight dips in 1992 and 2000.

"Prematurity is the number one killer of newborns. We see from these latest statistics that the prematurity crisis in this country continues to intensify, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will only make it worse, " said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Babies are dying and those who survive are too often left with devastating consequences – such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, learning problems and blindness."

Does anyone know the cause of this trend? More drug and alcohol abuse by moms? Could premies that were previously classified as stillborn be getting high tech medical treatments that cause more of them to be classified as live births?

A recent BBC report entitled "Many couples unfit for pregnancy" reports a lot of British women are irresponsible about drug and alcohol use while trying to conceive.

A poll of 2,000 women in the UK by Pregnancy & Birth magazine found two-thirds drink alcohol and four in 10 smoke while trying for a baby.

Only 44% of women hoping to conceive said they tried to eat a healthy diet.


A third of the women and their male partners trying to conceive were overweight, according to the responses.

Three out of 10 couples trying to conceive reported taking recreational drugs.

Damage from drug and alcohol abuse does not stop at the moment of birth. In Astoria Oregon half of all child welfare office workload is due to methamphetamine abuse.

“Meth is absolutely the worst drug in terms of child safety,” said Jay Wurscher, DHS Alcohol and Drug Services supervisor. “Children are put in dangerous, neglectful, abusive situations.”

About 75 percent of the 250 cases handled by the local Child Welfare office are drug- or alcohol-related, and of those, almost three-quarters involve meth, according to caseworker Chris Wilbur. “I joined the department in July 2001. It was a major problem then, and it has gotten steadily worse.”

Meth abuse has risen greatly in recent years. Could it be responsible for most of the increase in premies?

A recent study done with alcohol exposure to rhesus macaque monkeys used positron emission tomography (PET scans) on the brains of offspring to examine the effects of alcohol on fetal brain development.

Writing in the current issue (Sept. 15, 2005) of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, a team of researchers led by Mary L. Schneider, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of occupational therapy and psychology, reports that when a monkey exposes her fetus to alcohol by drinking, the dopamine system of her offspring is altered. Effects on that key neural system, according to the study's results, can manifest themselves up to five years after birth, when the monkeys are fully grown.

The influence of alcohol on the dopamine system, depending on the timing of exposure during gestation, varies, says Schneider, but illustrates yet another biological consequence of drinking while pregnant.

"It appears that there is no safe time to drink," says the Wisconsin researcher. "And because our study looked at the effects of lower doses of alcohol than most previous studies, the results suggest there is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. Even moderate drinking can have effects that persist to adulthood."

Depending on what part of pregnancy the monkeys were exposed, alcohol made the monkeys either stimulation junkies or too easily distracted and overwhelmed by stimulation.

For two groups of monkeys, those exposed during early gestation, when dopamine neurons are first forming in the brain, and those exposed continuously throughout pregnancy, the dopamine system appears to be blunted, Schneider says. "If the dopamine system is blunted, you might not get the usual flushes of dopamine in response toe environmental events, and you may seek alcohol or drugs" as a substitute for the stimulation dopamine normally provides.

For the monkeys exposed to alcohol during middle-to-late gestation, the effect was the opposite: "Animals exposed later had supersensitive (dopamine) receptors. If you have supersensitive receptors, you're more susceptible to sensory overload and environmental stimuli can become overwhelming."

The new results add to a long list of alcohol's negative effects on the developing fetus. In the last 30 years, scientists have come to understand that exposing the fetus to alcohol, the drug most widely abused by pregnant women, leads to a host of health and development issues, including low birth weight, facial deformities and mental retardation. The availability of powerful imaging techniques such as PET, which can illustrate the brain at work, are helping scientists make even finer distinctions, linking damage to the developing brain to behavioral problems and learning disabilities later in life.

Why should someone have to grow up with the result of such exposure? Why should women be allowed to get away with abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol while pregnant?

Also see my previous posts "Low Birth Weight Baby Development Problems Raise Ethical Question" and "Should Pregnant Drug Abusers Be Institutionalized?".

By Randall Parker 2005 September 16 03:37 PM  Bioethics Debate
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2005 September 13 Tuesday
Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Accumulate Potentially Dangerous Mutations

Existing embryonic stem cell lines that have divided for years contain many genetic mutations that earlier versions of those lines do not contain.

An international team of researchers has discovered that human embryonic stem cell lines accumulate changes in their genetic material over time.

The findings do not limit the utility of the cells for some types of research or for some future clinical applications, the researchers say, but draw attention to the need to closely monitor stem cell lines for genetic changes and to study how these alterations affect the cells' behavior. The researchers' work is described in the Sept. 4 online edition of Nature Genetics.

"This is just the first step," says Aravinda Chakravarti, Ph.D., one of the research team's leaders and professor and director of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins. "While this is a snapshot of the genomic changes that can happen, it's certainly not everything going on. We still need comprehensive analyses of the changes and what they mean for the functions of embryonic stem cells."

"Embryonic stem cells are actually far more genetically stable than other stem cells, but our work shows that even they can accumulate potentially deleterious changes over time," adds Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins who shares first authorship of the paper with Dan Arking, Ph.D., an instructor at Hopkins. Both are members of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins. "Now it will be important to figure out why these changes occur, how they affect the cells' behavior and how time affects other human embryonic stem cell lines."

My guess is they compared versions of the stem cell lines that had been frozen years ago with other versions of those same lines that had been kept growing in cell culture dividing many times since each embryonic stem cell line was created. Those sort of sub-lines of the original stem cell lines that have divided more have more mutations. Note that this is not surprising. Cells grown in culture are not growing in ideal conditions and when cells divide they do so imperfectly anyhow.

The researchers in the United States, Singapore, Canada and Sweden compared "early" and "late" batches of each of nine federally approved human embryonic stem cell lines. Twenty-nine human embryonic stem cell lines from seven different companies are approved by the United States National Institutes of Health under President George W. Bush's policy restricting federal funding of this research to cell lines in existence before his announcement of the policy at 9 p.m. ET, Aug. 9, 2001. The dozens of human embryonic stem cell lines developed since that announcement cannot be used in federally funded research.

Most of the "late" batches of stem cells -- those grown in the lab a year to three years longer than their early counterparts -- displayed gross changes in the number of copies of chromosomes or parts of chromosomes, in the marks that control whether a gene is used by the cell, or in the sequence of DNA found in the cell's mitochondria.

Some of the changes found resemble changes seen in cancer cells.

"The majority of the lines we tested had genetic changes over time," says Chakravarti. "Whenever you have something in a culture dish, it can change, and it will be important to identify, keep track of and understand these changes."

At this point, the precise effects of these changes on the cells aren't known, but some of the changes resemble those seen in cancerous cells. At any rate, the changes presumably became entrenched in a particular cell line because they conferred some advantage as the cells were grown in laboratory dishes. Whether the changes affect the stem cells' abilities to become other cell types is also unknown.

In the body aged adult stem cells that accumulate dangerous mutations are suspected by many scientists as being major sources of cancer. Adult stem cells grown in culture will mutate just as these embryonic stem cells have done. Therefore this result does not demonstrate a problem specific to embryonic stem cells and should not be seen as a useful debate point by opponents of human embryonic stem cell research.

Note how the scientists can not say for sure whether any of the mutations in these human embryonic stem cells put them at risk of causing cancers. One reason for this lack of certainty is that all the genetic mutations that contribute to cancer are not yet known. The other reason is that even if all those mutations were known some might be hard to test for. To defeat cancer and fully realize the potential of both adult and embryonic stem cells we need cheaper and better technologies for DNA sequencing and DNA testing.

Gene chips were essential tools for this research. Better tools mean better and faster research.

Although research with human embryonic stem cells is still in the lab -- not the clinic -- focusing on what the cells can do and how they are controlled, the hope is that in the future these cells might help replace or repair tissues lost to disease or injury. Because embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell found in the body, in theory they could replace certain pancreas cells in people with type I diabetes, or regenerate brain cells lost in a person with Parkinson's disease, for example.

The analyses of the embryonic stem cell lines and the computer comparisons of the mounds of resulting data required the efforts of scientists at four academic centers, two federal laboratories and three companies. Critical to the team's success was prescient support of cutting-edge technology development by the National Institutes of Health, support that enabled development of the technological infrastructure necessary for large-scale comparative research, particularly the Human Genome Project, says study co-author Mahendra Rao, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging.

The scientists used so-called GeneChip microarrays, or oligonucleotide arrays, to determine whether there were genetic differences between the early and the late batch of each of the stem cell lines, including whether any genes were present in extra copies. Depending on the gene affected, extra copies could lead to accelerated cell growth, increased cell death, or no measurable effect at all.

Epigenetic changes in the form of methylation patterns on the DNA backbone were also seen along with the genetic mutations. Note that epigenetic changes are also thought to contribute to the development of cancer.

In addition to probing changes in the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences and copy numbers, the researchers examined whether the cells' genetic material had shifts in marks that sit on genes and are passed from cell to cell during cell division. These so-called epigenetic marks -- in this case methyl groups on a gene region known as the promoter -- help control whether a gene is used by a cell to make proteins. The researchers determined the methylation status of 14 genes in each of the batches of stem cells; three of the genes did show different methylation patterns in late batches compared to early batches.

What creates the differences between embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and various specialized functional cell types throughout the body? Epigenetic changes. If we had the ability to precisely change methylation patterns in any way desired then we probably could convert any cell type to any other cell type. The point is that epigenetic state is important and the development of better abilities to test and change epigenetic state would greatly help in the development of stem cell therapies.

The embryonic stem cells also had deletion and duplication mutations.

The scientists' analysis revealed that five of the nine cell lines had extra or fewer copies of at least one section of their genetic material in the late batch compared to the same cell line's early batch. Two of the nine lines had changes in their mitochondrial DNA over time, and all nine stem cell lines exhibited some shift in methylation of at least one of three genes. One of these genes, called RASSF1A, is also methylated in many cancers, but what effect the methylation has on the stem cells is unknown.

The team is already planning to conduct similar analyses of the remaining NIH-approved cell lines, but analysis of stem cell lines not available for use with federal funds will also be needed, the team members say.

These results suggest that existing embryonic stem cell lines are going to have limited utility in the development of therapies. Lots of research can still be conducted on these stem cell lines. But I'd be very reluctant to have any of these mutated embryonic stem cells injected into yours truly. Also, years will go by before these stem cells can get massaged into useful forms for therapies and they will accumulate even more mutations in that time.

Stem cell lines created just when they are needed (whether embryonic or slightly more differentiated adult stem cell lines) would reduce the risk of mutations. However, even "just in time" stem cell lines would need extensive genetic testing because whichever cell would be used for the starter nucleus might contain mutations that put the resulting stem cell line at heightened risk of creating a cancer.

It is possible that future gene therapies will allow at least partial repair of these cell lines. But those gene therapies could be many years into the future.

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey's proposal for dealing with the cancer risk from stem cell lines is to knock out the telomerase gene so that any cancer would eventually be halted by telomere decay. The downside of such an approach is that the youthful stem cell line would not function for as long in the body before needing yet another replenishment by another youthful stem cell line. But maybe that would be worth the lowered cancer risk.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 13 02:22 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2005 September 12 Monday
ANWR More Valuable To Exploit Once Oil Peaks

Matthew Simmons is a Houston energy investment banker who has written a much discussed book (Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy) arguing that the Saudis have far less oil reserves than they claim. In a recent interview Simmons makes an important point about projections on how long oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could run the United States If ANWR goes into production well after the point of world peak oil production then the number of months oil from ANWR will operate the US economy will be much longer because the US economy will be running on much less oil as world oil production declines.

The environmental community’s claim that ANWR contains only a six months supply of oil is a calculation that assumes the nation has no other source of oil when ANWR oil comes on line, Simmons said.

“On that standard, we end any new energy development, period,” Simmons said. “What is very important about the urgent need to find more oil at ANWR, the Naval Reserve or somewhere else on the slope is the inevitable decline of North Slope oil, and the fast decline that will happen if a gas pipeline is built and the gas caps (are) blown down.”

Moreover, it would not take 10 years to get a big oil find in ANWR into production since the infrastructure is in place, Simmons observed.

“At some point, the oil that flows through the 2 million bpd pipeline must fall to a level insufficient to get oil over the Brooks Range other than by shutting in for part of a month so the oil can be batched,” he explained. “If all ANWR does is extend the life of the pipeline, it has filled a very valuable role.

The view I've had about ANWR for a very long time is that some day it will get put into production once world oil production peaks. The environmentalist opposition to ANWR will end up being a blessing but not for the reasons that motivated the environmentalists. The delay in the ANWR drilling will make oil available to the United States from a US field when prices are much higher.

The environmentalist opposition to ANWR drilling should probably continue just so that ANWR remains effectively as a national petroleum reserve tappable when oil gets scarce. This is a position assured to anger both environmentalists and ANWR drilling advocates. But, hey, I call 'em as I see 'em.

If the peak oil pessimists are correct then the debates we have today about ANWR drilling, continental shelf drilling, car efficiency standards, nuclear power, and many other energy policy areas will soon seem old and perhaps quaint. Higher energy prices will change many energy policy debates. All those years of attempts at rational debate on energy will get wiped away by a wave of rising oil prices.

I see one irony in all this. If oil production peaks sooner then opposition to nuclear power will dissolve. The only way that environmentalist opposition to nuclear power can prevent a resurgence of nuclear power in Western countries (excluding France where the public never wavered in support for nukes) is if oil production can continue to rise for long enough that solar power and wind power can get cheap enough to serve as substitutes.

Looked at from this perspective Shell's promising technology for extracting oil from oil shale probably works against nuclear power. If Shell's efforts with oil shale succeed the US might again become a net oil exporter - which would represent a huge shift in the US's financial position vis a vis the rest of the world. Since about 80% of oil shale is on federally owned land the US government looks set to rake in big royalties when oil production peaks.

Coal, wind, solar, and nuclear power are currently all poor substitutes for oil. We need better batteries or other ways to convert electric power into forms that can power vehicles. But if peak oil comes sooner (say in the next 10 years) then the incentives to produce better batteries will probably solve that problem.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 12 03:24 PM  Energy Policy
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2005 September 11 Sunday
Brain Scans Show Why Schizotypal Personalities More Creative

Schizotypal personalities are more creative.

New research on individuals with schizotypal personalities – people characterized by odd behavior and language but who are not psychotic or schizophrenic – offers the first neurological evidence that they are more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic individuals, and rely more heavily on the right sides of their brains than the general population to access their creativity.

The work by Vanderbilt psychologists Brad Folley and Sohee Park was published online last week by the journal Schizophrenia Research.

"The idea that schizotypes have enhanced creativity has been out there for a long time but no one has investigated the behavioral manifestations and their neural correlates experimentally," Folley says. "Our paper is unique because we investigated the creative process experimentally and we also looked at the blood flow in the brain while research subjects were undergoing creative tasks."

Folley and Park conducted two experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal control subjects. In the first experiment, the researchers showed research subjects a variety of household objects and asked them to make up new functions for them. The results showed that the schizotypes were better able to creatively suggest new uses for the objects, while the schizophrenics and average subjects performed similarly to one another.

"Thought processes for individuals with schizophrenia are often very disorganized, almost to the point where they can’t really be creative because they cannot get all of their thoughts coherent enough to do that," Folley observes. "Schizotypes, on the other hand, are free from the severe, debilitating symptoms surrounding schizophrenia and also have an enhanced creative ability."

So then is creativity just the result of unusual brain anatomy?

Brain scans showed that schizotypes use more of their right hemispheres for creative work than do normal or schizophrenic people.

In the second experiment, the three groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects as well as to perform a basic control task while the activity in their prefrontal lobes was monitored using a brain scanning techniques called near-infrared optical spectroscopy. The brain scans showed that all groups used both brain hemispheres for creative tasks, but that the activation of the right hemispheres of the schizotypes was dramatically greater than that of the schizophrenic and average subjects, suggesting a positive benefit of schizotypy.

"In the scientific community, the popular idea that creativity exists in the right side of the brain is thought to be ridiculous, because you need both hemispheres of your brain to make novel associations and to perform other creative tasks," Folley says. "We found that all three groups, schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal controls, did use both hemispheres when performing creative tasks. But the brain scans of the schizotypes showed a hugely increased activation of the right hemisphere compared to the schizophrenics and the normal controls."

Suppose the schizotypes have some genetic component to how their brains work. Once genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible or even once detailed genetic testing of fertilized eggs becomes possible will future parents make choices that decrease the fraction of the population that have brain wiring that make them especially creative?

Or, more optimistically, will genetic variations be found that increase creativity while lowering risk of mental disorders?

Also see my previous posts "Low Latent Inhibition Plus High Intelligence Leads To High Creativity?" and "Brain Scans Show Working Memory, Moments Of Insight".

By Randall Parker 2005 September 11 03:55 PM  Brain Creativity
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2005 September 08 Thursday
Brain Gene Allele Frequences Show Brain Still Evolving

Bruce Lahn and colleagues at the University of Chicago continue their ground-breaking research on the evolution of human intelligence with their finding that two genes involved in cognition have been under strong selective pressure since humans left Africa.

The gene Microcephalin (MCPH1) regulates brain size and has evolved under strong positive selection in the human evolutionary lineage. We show that one genetic variant of Microcephalin in modern humans, which arose ~37,000 years ago, increased in frequency too rapidly to be compatible with neutral drift. This indicates that it has spread under strong positive selection, although the exact nature of the selection is unknown. The finding that an important brain gene has continued to evolve adaptively in anatomically modern humans suggests the ongoing evolutionary plasticity of the human brain. It also makes Microcephalin an attractive candidate locus for studying the genetics of human variation in brain-related phenotypes.

A popular myth holds that evolution takes hundreds of thousands or millions of years to produce significant differences in a species. But even 1000 years is enough time in human evolution to produce large changes in allele frequencies. Heck, just look at the different rates of growth of various human population in the 20th century. At the beginning of the century white Europeans were about 25% of the world's population and last I read they were at 10% (or was it even lower?) and dropping. That caused big changes in the frequencies of a large number of alleles (places where DNA sequences differ between people).

Think about the times when these alleles started increasing in frequency in Lahn's reports. One he estimates started sweeping approximately 37,000 years ago. Another started sweeping approximately 5,800 years ago. Note they might both be much older. But those dates appear to be the dates when they really started spreading. They have both spread far in some human populations and yet not in others. This has big implications. Many other alleles for other traits (e.g. the ability to make lactase while an adult or red hair) obviously have spread in some populations on time scales in the thousands of years. But some people didn't want to believe that this could or did happen for brain gene alleles. Well, yes, it did.

I've coined a term to describe people who argue that the brain hasn't changed much since humans left Africa: Neo-Cartesian Dualists. Why that term? Well, Cartesian Dualism was the idea that the mind somehow existed independent of the brain. The modern Neo-Cartesian Dualism basically holds (not that I think its believers all really understand this implication of their myth) that the genes for coding the brain exist independent of any Darwinian selective force. The brain genes exist in a sort of magical realm where either natural selection can't reach or natural selection magically operates equally on all humans. But this could only be the case if a supernatural entity intervened to make it so. Reality does not work that way.

From the Howard Hughes Medical Institute press release.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers who have analyzed sequence variations in two genes that regulate brain size in human populations have found evidence that the human brain is still evolving.

They speculate that if the human species continues to survive, the human brain may continue to evolve, driven by the pressures of natural selection. Their data suggest that major variants in these genes arose at roughly the same times as the origin of culture in human populations as well as the advent of agriculture and written language.

The research team, which was led by Bruce T. Lahn, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Chicago, published its findings in two articles in the September 9, 2005, issue of the journal Science.

Their analyses focused on detecting sequence changes in two genes - Microcephalin and “abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated” (ASPM) - across different human populations. In humans, mutations in either of these genes can render the gene nonfunctional and cause microcephaly - a clinical syndrome in which the brain develops to a much smaller size than normal.

In earlier studies of non-human primates and humans, Lahn and his colleagues determined that both Microcephalin and ASPM showed significant changes under the pressure of natural selection during the making of the human species. “Our earlier studies showed that Microcephalin showed evidence of accelerated evolution along the entire primate lineage leading to humans, for the entire thirty to thirty-five million years that we sampled,” he said. “However, it seemed to have evolved slightly slower later on. By contrast, ASPM has evolved most rapidly in the last six million years of hominid evolution, after the divergence of humans and chimpanzees.”

Here is the most important part:

The researchers first sequenced the two genes in an ethnically diverse selection of about 90 individuals. The researchers also sequenced the genes in the chimpanzee, to determine the “ancestral” state of polymorphisms in the genes and to assess the extent of human-chimpanzee divergence.

In each gene, the researchers found distinctive sets of polymorphisms, which are sequence differences between different individuals. Blocks of linked polymorphisms are called haplotypes, whereby each haplotype is, in essence, a distinct genetic variant of the gene. They found that they could further break the haplotypes down into related variants called haplogroups. Their analysis indicated that for each of the two genes, one haplogroup occurs at a frequency far higher than that expected by chance, indicating that natural selection has driven up the frequency of the haplogroup. They referred to the high-frequency haplogroup as haplogroup D.

When the researchers compared the ethnic groups in their sample for haplogroup D of ASPM, they found that it occurs more frequently in European and related populations, including Iberians, Basques, Russians, North Africans, Middle Easterners and South Asians. That haplogroup was found at a lower incidence in East Asians, sub-Saharan Africans and New World Indians. For Microcephalin, the researchers found that haplogroup D is more abundant in populations outside of Africa than in populations from sub-Saharan Africa.

Selective pressures on brain genes continued after humans migrated from Africa. The size of those selective pressures was not the same in populations that moved to various different parts of the world. Natural selection did not stop operating on brain genes once humanity developed into distinct races. The implications of this result are profound.

The ASPM haplogroup D spread started perhaps about 5,800 years ago (and that is an estimate around some range) and its emergence coincided with the spread of agriculture and the emergence of culturally modern humans!

To produce more informative statistical data on the frequency of haplotype D among population groups, the researchers applied their methods to a larger population sample of more than one thousand people. That analysis also showed the same distribution of haplogroups.

Their statistical analysis indicated that the Microcephalin haplogroup D appeared about 37,000 years ago, and the ASPM haplogroup D appeared about 5,800 years ago - both well after the emergence of modern humans about 200,000 years ago. “In the case of Microcephalin, the origin of the new variant coincides with the emergence of culturally modern humans,” said Lahn. “And the ASPM new variant originated at a time that coincides with the spread of agriculture, settled cities, and the first record of written language. So, a major question is whether the coincidence between the genetic evolution that we see and the cultural evolution of humans was causative, or did they synergize with each other?”

Lahn said that the geographic origin and circumstances surrounding the spread of the haplogroups can only be surmised at this point. “One can make guesses, but our study doesn't reveal how these positively selected variants arrived," he said. "They may have arisen in Europe or the Middle East and spread more readily east and west due to human migrations, as opposed to south to Africa because of geographic barriers. Or, they could have arisen in Africa, and increased in frequency once early humans migrated out of Africa.”

While the roles of Microcephalin and ASPM in regulating brain size suggest that the selective pressure on the new variants may relate to cognition, Lahn emphasized that this possibility remains speculative. “What we can say is that our findings provide evidence that the human brain, the most important organ that distinguishes our species, is evolutionarily plastic,” he said. Finding evidence of selection in two such genes is mutually reinforcing, he pointed out. “Finding this effect in one gene could be anecdotal, but finding it in two genes would make it a trend. Here we have two microcephaly genes that show evidence of selection in the evolutionary history of the human species and that also show evidence of ongoing selection in humans.”

I've been expecting the left-liberal inequality taboo to die by 2015. But declines in the cost of DNA sequencing combined with research results such as that reported above make me more optimistic. The taboo might have only about 5 more years to run.

Also see my previous posts "Many Genes Changed To Make Human Ancestors Progressively Smarter", "Researchers Find Key Gene For Evolution Of Human Intelligence", "Human Brain Size Regulating Gene To Be Inserted Into Mice", and "Genetic Causes Of Infidelity Found In Twins Study".

Update: Nicholas Wade of the New York Times provides more details on the frequency of each allele in different human populations.

They report that with microcephalin, a new allele arose about 37,000 years ago, although it could have appeared as early as 60,000 or as late as 14,000 years ago. Some 70 percent or more of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele of the gene, as do 100 percent of those in three South American Indian populations, but the allele is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.

With the other gene, ASPM, a new allele emerged some time between 14,100 and 500 years ago, the researchers favoring a mid-way date of 5,800 years. The allele has attained a frequency of about 50 percent in populations of the Middle East and Europe, is less common in East Asia, and found at low frequency in some sub-Saharan Africa peoples.

The handwriting is on the wall. The evidence about human genetic differences in cognition found in psychometric research increasingly is getting buttressed by results from biological research. The discovery of more alleles that affect cognitive ability combined with DNA sequence comparisons will, within a few years time, lead to the collapse of the most damaging myth of our era.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 08 02:37 PM  Brain Evolution
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2005 September 05 Monday
Shell Oil Shale Extraction Technology Economically Viable?

The development of an economically viable way to extract oil from oil shale would put a ceiling on oil prices and would extend the oil era by decades. It would also increase the odds of significant global warming. Well, in light of all that a variety of media outlets are reporting that Shell Oil thinks it can produce oil from oil shale at $30 per barrel using an in situ process where the shale is cooked without first mining it onto the surface.

They don't need subsidies; the process should be commercially feasible with world oil prices at $30 a barrel. The energy balance is favorable; under a conservative life-cycle analysis, it should yield 3.5 units of energy for every 1 unit used in production. The process recovers about 10 times as much oil as mining the rock and crushing and cooking it at the surface, and it's a more desirable grade. Reclamation is easier because the only thing that comes to the surface is the oil you want.

And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.

Shell is just now moving onto the next stage to decide by 2010 whether their process is commercially feasible.

Shell has received approval from Rio Blanco County, state and federal officials to conduct a $50 million, two- to four-year study of a groundwater freezing process, said Jill Davis.

“We’re still looking to decide if we’ll move on to commercial production by the end of the decade,” she said. “It’s been promising, so we want to take it to the next level with an environmental test of our ‘freeze wall’ process.”

Refrigerants, such as ammonia dioxide, are circulated through underground pipes to freeze the groundwater and earth to keep groundwater out of an oil-shale formation.

“We’ve tested the process in a circular pattern and this will be a football field-shaped rectangle in an area more like where commercial production could happen,” she said.

Some estimates for the amount of oil in shale range as high as 1 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels. Assume that 1 trillion barrels could be extracted. The United States currently uses about 20.5 million barrels per day which is about a quarter of current world oil demand. World oil demand is projected to rise to 119 million barrels per day by 2025 or about a 50% increase. Suppose we take that 119 million barrel figure and round it off to 120 million barrels. Also let us assume that oil shale could yield 1 trillion barrels of oil. That oil shale would satisfy total world oil demand by this equation: 1,000,000 million barrels/(365 days per year times 120 million barrels per day) which equals only 22 years at the projected year 2025 consumption rate. Even oil shale can delay the end of the oil era by a couple of decades. Still, we could use those decades to develop technologies to lower the cost of nuclear and photovoltaic solar power.

A recent RAND corporation report with lead author James Bartis argues the US government should add oil shale to its energy research portfolio.

Since the future prospects for oil shale remain uncertain, the RAND report recommends that the federal government refrain from major investments in oil shale development until the private sector is prepared to commit its technical, management and financial resources. However, the report recommends a few low-cost efforts that can begin in the near future to move oil shale development forward.

The report by the RAND Environment, Energy and Economic Development program says that between 500 billion and 1.1 trillion barrels of oil are technically recoverable from high-grade oil shale deposits located in the Green River geological formation, covering parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The mid-point of the RAND estimate – 800 billion barrels – is three times the size of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. This is enough oil to meet 25 percent of America's current oil demand for the next 400 years.

The benefits of a competitive oil shale industry are substantial. For an output of 3 million barrels per day, the study estimates direct economic benefits of about $20 billion per year. Federal, state and local governments would receive about half of this amount in the form of lease payments, royalties and taxes.

Production at 3 million barrels per day also could likely cause oil prices to fall by 3 to 5 percent, saving American oil consumers roughly $15 billion to $20 billion annually, according to the report. A multimillion-barrel per day oil shale industry could also create several hundred thousand jobs in the United States.

The in situ process may avoid many of the environmental problems that arise from oil shale mining.

Another technical development that has been taking place involves heating the oil shale while it is still in the ground – a process called in-situ conversion. Mining is not required. Instead, electric heating elements are placed in bore holes, slowly heating the shale oil deposit. The released liquids are gathered in wells specifically designed for that purpose.

In contrast to surface mining, in-situ conversion does not permanently modify land surface topography and may be significantly less damaging to the environment. Small field tests conducted by Shell Oil involving an in-situ approach appear promising. While larger scale tests are needed, Shell anticipates that this method may be competitive with crude oil priced below $30 per barrel. RAND has not developed an independent estimate of the price level needed to make in-situ conversion competitive.

On the environmental side, adverse land and ecological impacts will accompany oil shale development no matter which approach is used. Oil shale production will also result in airborne and greenhouse gas emissions that could severely limit oil production levels.

Colorado has the largest oil shale deposits and some deposits have more oil per ton of rock.

Steve Wiig, geologist for the Rock Springs BLM office, said Wyoming oil shale, on average, would produce 15 to 30 gallons of oil per ton of oil shale rock. He said the Colorado and Utah deposits could produce 30 to 40 gallons, with some sites capable of producing 60 gallons of oil per ton of oil shale.

Another company says it can produce oil from shale even more cheaply using a more conventional approach.

For example, one of the star witnesses of Gibbons' hearings was Jack Savage, president of Utah-based Oil-Tech Inc. He said the company is ready to start cooking oil out of shale with a retort it has built near Vernal, Utah.

"We have been working on this for 15 years," Savage said. "Now we're ready to go."

Savage, once president of companies that manufactured golf bags and other sporting goods, said he can turn shale into oil for $10 to $22 a barrel, depending on market conditions. Savage pushed for an accelerated federal leasing program, but he's already leased 38,000 acres of state land in Utah and says he's working on a research-and-development bid to continue work on his project.

The biggest problem with mining oil shale comes as a result of heating oil shale rock. The rock expands in size and then can't just get put back where it was excavated.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 05 07:19 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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New Orleans On Google Maps Satellite Shots

On Google Maps check out New Orleans. Note the "Satellite" and "Katrina" buttons which I think are before and after shots for the Hurricane. Check out a zoomed out shot of a larger area.

Anyone else have better sources of aerial views looking down for viewing the effect of the damage on coastlines and rivers?

Update: I think these are Superdome before and after shots. Note that the underlying stuff you are seeing is probably still the roof but without the white covering.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 05 01:54 PM  Dangers Natural General
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2005 September 02 Friday
France Prepares For Avian Flu Pandemic

France is taking bigger steps than most Western countries to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic.

French newspaper Liberation said the government had already acquired 5 million doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, produced by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, and was planning to raise the level to 14 million by the year end.

France has a population of over 60 million people. Not all the population would get sick. 14 million Tamiflu doses might be enough if many steps were taken to reduce the rate of transmission of the flu virus.

The French government is also negotiating contracts to produce large stocks of flu vaccines. But pre-stocking flu vaccines might not work since the avian H5N1 viruses in birds are still mutating. If a viable strain emerges in humans it might look antigenically very different than any strain used now to base a vaccine on.

The French government is also purchasing a couple hundred million face masks.

The number of protective face masks in stock would be increased to 200 million by the start of next year from 50 million.

One wonders how long these masks would last. The 3M N100 and P100 masks last for 150 hours. However, most masks last for about an order of magnitude less time. Therefore individuals out in public all day would need many masks to get through the length of time of a pandemic.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 02 01:44 PM  Dangers Natural Bio
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Beam Me Up Scotty: Will Teleportation Ever Become Possible?

Physicist Eric W. Davis recently completed a study on whether teleportation could ever work.

Davis, who has a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Arizona, has worked on NASA robotic missions. His 79-page Air Force study seriously explored a series of possibilities, ranging from "Star Trek"-style travel to transportation via so-called wormholes in the fabric of space to psychic travel through solid walls.

I want to teleport to parallel universes, preferably at different points in time lines. I want to teleport to a parallel universe similar to our own with human civilizations but about 50 years further along in biotechnological development and get full SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) treatments that are very long lasting. Then, with a body full of biotech and nanotech that will keep me young for a couple of centuries I would want to travel into the past in other parallel universes.

The amount of computing power and energy needed would seem to preclude the possibility.

For example, the computing-encoding of the entire contents of a human body would require 10 to the 28th (the number one followed by 28 zeroes) kilobytes of computer storage capacity. It would take 100 quintillion of the world's best commercially available hard drives "to store the encoded information of just one human being."

Also, "it will take more than 2,400 times the present age of the universe (about 13 billion years) to access this amount of data" from the computers, Davis writes. And "to heat up and dematerialize one human being would require . .. the energy equivalent of 330 one-megaton thermonuclear bombs."

That's not exactly encouraging,

Tim Ventura of AmericanAntigravity.Com interviewed Eric Davis on Davis' wide range of interests in interstellar travel and also on the potential of doing teleportation.

Quantum teleportation will continue to evolve. The negative effects of decoherence upon the entanglement process is now becoming well understood and brought under control, so that the fidelity of teleporting the quantum states of large samples of atomic matter and photons has improved and will continue to do so. The science will evolve to demonstrate the teleportation of molecular states and later on large samples of molecules will have their states successfully teleported. Other quantum teleportation breakthroughs will continue to be announced, and these will involve teleporting other features and facets of matter and information that we have yet to fathom.

It will become possible in the future to forsee dabbling in the quantum teleportation of live beings and bulk inanimate matter (like cargo). But this will involve the destruction of their physical quantum states in order to teleport those states to another "glom" of matter, thus destroying the originals. This will create difficult ethical questions that will have to be considered.

My guess is if any of us wants to live to see teleportation we first need to solve the relatively easier problem of full body rejuvenation. More generally, to realize the goal of personally experiencing many sorts of science fiction fantasies such as interstellar travel and first contact with alien species your best bet is to support an acceleration of rejuvenation research. Given hundreds of years of youthful lives lots of things become possible in reality that we can now experience only in fantasy.

Check out Wikipedia's web page on teleportation for more on Davis's study and teleportation in general.

By Randall Parker 2005 September 02 12:16 PM  Travel Tech
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