In the past few years, medical researchers have been able to replicate real, living tissues samples using 3-D printing technology – ranging from replacement ears and printed cartilage to miniature kidneys and even liver cells. Well now, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, eye cells have been added to that list.
Using a standard ink-jet printer to form layers of two types of cells, the research team managed to print two types of central nervous system cells from the retinas of adult rats – ganglion cells (which transmit information from the eye to the brain), and glial cells (which provide protection and support for neurons). The resulting cells were able to grow normally and remain healthy in culture.
Ink-jet printing has been used to deposit cells before, but this is the first time cells from an adult animal’s central nervous system have been printed. The research team published its research in the IOP Publishing’s open-access journal Biofabrication and plans to extend this study to print other cells of the retina and light-sensitive photoreceptors.
In the report, Keith Martin and Barbara Lorber – the co-authors of the paper who work at the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge – explained the experiment in detail:
Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.
This is especially good news for people with impaired visual acuity, or those who fear losing their sight, as it could lead to new therapies for retinal disorders such as blindness and macular degeneration. Naturally, more tests are needed before human trials can begin. But the research and its conclusions are quite reassuring that eye cells can not only be produced synthetically, but will remain healthy after they are produced.
Clara Eaglen, a spokesperson for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), had this to say about the breakthrough:
The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored. Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not. It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.
Combined with bionic eyes that are now approved for distribution in the US, and stem cell treatments that have restores sight in mice, this could be the beginning of the end of blindness. And with all the strides being made in bioprinting and biofabrication, it could also be another step on the long road to replacement organs and print-on-demand body parts.
Synthetic biology – also known as biohacking – is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences. And thanks to a recent ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court, it is a process which is now entirely legal. All told, the potential applications of synthetic biology are largely useful, leading to lifesaving cures, or altered crops that survive in any environment.
However, there are numerous potential (and potentially harmful) commercial applications that could emerge from this as well. One such advancement comes from a DIY synthetic biology lab known as Glowing Plant, one that specializes in synthetic bio hacking. Basically, the project was one of many that emerged out of Singularity University – a research institute dedicated future technologies today.
Glowing Plant was originally created to show the power of DIY synthetic biology, and has since sets its sights on developing a species of glowing house plant for consumers. To fund their goal, they opened up a Kickstarter campaign – the first of its kind – with the goal of $65,000. Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promised backers that they would receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home.
Glowing Plant also announced that if the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available. As of the publication of this article, they passed that goal with a whopping $484,013 from a total of 8,433 backers. It seems there are no shortage of people out there who want to get their hands on a glowing house plant.
But Glowing Plant, the laboratory behind the project, has no intention of stopping there. As Antony Evans, co-founder of the project explained:
We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects. People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology.
Given the thousands of people backing the project, I’d say he’s right! But rest assured, Evans and his team have no intention of stopping there. The ultimate goal is to create larger species of glowing plants.
The method used to achieve this is really quite interesting. It starts with the team downloading the luciferase-lucifern genes – the firefly DNA that allows them to glow – into a Genome Compiler, and then rewiring the DNA so that the proteins can be read by plants. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper, and mailed back to the team.
After that, the team relies on one of two methods to transmit the firefly DNA into the Arabidopsis’ themselves. One way is to use a bacteria solution that is capable of injecting its own DNA into plants and rewriting theirs, which then causes the altered plants to germinate seeds of the new glowing strain. The other involves gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct that are then fired at the plant cells, which are then absorbed into the plant chromosomes and alters their DNA.
This second method was devised to do an end run around specific Department of Agriculture regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA. Though technically legal, the process has attracted resistance from environmental groups and the scientific community, fearing that the DNA of these altered plants will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences.
In fact, an anti-synthetic biology group called ECT has emerged in response to this and other such projects – and is centered in my old hometown of Ottawa! They have countered Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign (which is now closed) with a fundraising drive of their own, entitled “Kickstopper”. In addition, the group has started a campaign on Avaaz.org to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling that allows this sort of bioengineering to take place.
At present, their fundraising campaign has raised a total of $1,701 from 58 backers – rougly 9% of its overall goal of $20,000 – and their Avaaz campaign has collected some 13,000 signatures. With 36 days left, there is no telling if they’re efforts will succeed in forcing a legal injunction on Glowing Plant, or if this is the first of many synthetic biology products that will make it to the market through private research and crowdfunding.
A fascinating time we live in, and potentially frightening…
It seems to be the trend these days. You take a predictions that was once the domain of science fiction and treat it as impending science fact. Then you recommend that before it comes to pass, we pre-emptively create some kind of legal framework or organization to deal with it once it does. Thus far, technologies which are being realized have been addressed – such as autonomous drones – but more and more, concepts and technologies which could be real any day now are making the cut.
It all began last year when the organization known as Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. It was soon followed when the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to investigate developments in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and determine if they posed a risk.
And most recently, just as the new year began, a report funded by the Greenwall Foundation examined the legal and ethical implications of using biologically enhanced humans on the battlefield. This report was filed in part due to advances being made in biotechnology and cybernetics, but also because of the ongoing and acknowledged efforts by the Pentagon and DARPA to develop super-soldiers.
The report, entitled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy”, was written by Keith Abney, Patrick Lin and Maxwell Mehlman of California Polytechnic State University. The group, which investigates ethical and legal issues as they pertain to the military’s effort to enhance human warfighters, received funding from the Greenwall Foundation, an organization that specializes in biomedicine and bioethics.
In a recent interview, Abney expressed the purpose of the report, emphasizing how pre-emptive measures are necessary before a trend gets out of hand:
“Too often, our society falls prey to a ‘first generation’ problem — we wait until something terrible has happened, and then hastily draw up some ill-conceived plan to fix things after the fact, often with noxious unintended consequences. As an educator, my primary role here is not to agitate for any particular political solution, but to help people think through the difficult ethical and policy issues this emerging technology will bring, preferably before something horrible happens.”
What’s more, he illustrated how measures are necessary now since projects are well-underway to develop super soldiers. These include powered exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance. These include devices like Lockheed Martin’s HULC, Raytheon’s XOS, UC Berkeley’s BLEEX, and other projects.
In addition, DARPA has numerous projects on the books designed to enhance a soldiers abilities with cybernetics and biotech. These include VR contact lenses, basic lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without a headset of glasses. There’s also their Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS), which is a computer-assisted visual aid that instantly identifies threats by augmenting their visual faculties.
And in the cognitive realm, there are such programs as Human Assisted Neural Devices (HAND) that seeks to strengthen and restore memories and the Peak Soldier Performance (PSP) program that will boosthuman endurance, both physical and cognitive. But of course, since post-traumtic stress disorder is a major problem, DARPA is also busy at work creating drugs and treatments that can erase memories, something which they hope will give mentally-scarred soldiers a new lease on life (and military service!)
And of course, the US is hardly alone in this regard. Every industrialized nation in the world, from the EU to East Asia, is involved in some form of Future Soldier or enhanced soldier program. And with nations like China and Russia catching up in several key areas – i.e. stealth, unmanned aerial vehicles and aeronautics – the race is on to create a soldier program that will ensure one nation has the edge.
But of course, as Abney himself points out, the issue of “enhancement” is a rather subjective term. For example, medical advancements are being made all the time that seek to address disabilities and disorders and also fall into the category of “enhancement”. Such ambiguities need to be ironed out before any legal framework can be devised, hence Abney and his associates came up with the following definition:
“In the end, we argued that the best definition of an enhancement is that it’s ‘a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health.”
Working from this starting point, Abney and his colleagues made the case in their report that the risk such enhancements pose over and above what is required for normal health helps explain their need for special moral consideration.
These include, but are not limited to, the issue of consent, whether or not a soldier voluntary submits to enhancement. Second, there is the issue of long-term effects and whether or not a soldier is made aware of them. Third, there is the issue of what will happen with these people if and when they retire from the services and attempt to reintegrate into normal society.
It’s complicated, and if it’s something the powers that be are determined to do, then they need to be addressed before they become a going concern. Last thing we need is a whole bunch of enhanced soldiers wandering around the countryside unable to turn off their augmented killer instincts and super-human strength. Or, at the very least, it would be good to know we have some kind of procedure in place in case they do!
Some very interesting things have been taking place in the last month, all of concerning the possibility that humanity may someday face the extinction at the hands of killer AIs. The first took place on November 19th, when Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”, a preemptive move to ensure that we as a species never develop machines that could one day turn against us.
The second came roughly a week later when the Pentagon announced that measures were being taken to ensure that wherever robots do kill – as with drones, remote killer bots, and cruise missiles – the controller will always be a human being. Yes, while Americans were preparing for Thanksgiving, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.
And then most recently, and perhaps in response to Harvard’s and HRW’s declaration, the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). This new body, which is headed up by such luminaries as Huw Price, Martin Rees, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, will investigate whether recent advances in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology might eventually trigger some kind of extinction-level event. The Centre will also look at anthropomorphic (human-caused) climate change, as it might not be robots that eventually kill us, but a swelteringly hot climate instead.
All of these developments stem from the same thing: ongoing developments in the field of computer science, remotes, and AIs. Thanks in part to the creation of the Google Neural Net, increasingly sophisticated killing machines, and predictions that it is only a matter of time before they are capable of making decisions on their own, there is some worry that machines programs to kill will be able to do so without human oversight. By creating bodies that can make recommendations on the application of technologies, it is hopes that ethical conundrums and threats can be nipped in the bud. And by legislating that human agency be the deciding factor, it is further hoped that such will never be the case.
The question is, is all this overkill, or is it make perfect sense given the direction military technology and the development of AI is taking? Or, as a third possibility, might it not go far enough? Given the possibility of a “Judgement Day”-type scenario, might it be best to ban all AI’s and autonomous robots altogether? Hard to say. All I know is, its exciting to live in a time when such things are being seriously contemplated, and are not merely restricted to the realm of science fiction.