Apr 23rd 2016

How open science can help solve Zika and prepare us for the next pandemic


"A growing number of vocal researchers have advocated that all research funded with public funds is open sourced, and not just the articles but the actual research data sets."

With the advent of synthetic biology and gene editing tools, there are amazing breakthroughs being made in medicine, energy and food. Within a few years, we will see cures for debilitating diseases, new biofuels, and grains that can be grown in extreme climates. We will also have many new nightmares: bioterrorism and well-meaning experiments that get out of hand. Imagine a superbug that can cure — or kill — millions of people or a virus which targets one person, say, a U.S. president. This is not science fiction; it is happening.

In 2011 a scientist, Craig Venter, created a new life form by transplanting a computer-designed genome into the cell of a bacterium that had had its DNA removed. Today, a gene-editing technique called CRISPR is being used to engineer extra-muscular beagles, micro-pigs, super-goats, and ever-white mushrooms. Chinese researchers have edited human embryos. The cost of doing basic synthetic biology experiments is only a few thousand dollars, for lab gear and chemicals, and it is possible to design and order up DNA sequences on the Internet.

We are not ready for the consequences of these technologies. We need to urgently develop new bio-defenses, rethink our laws, and bring together researchers from all over the world to solve the problems as soon as they occur.

We can start by forming a global coalition to attack the Zika virus.

Zika is propagated by mosquitoes and causes birth defects in infected mothers. It is likely to spread worldwide within the next year. The solution may lie in open-sourcing information — as leading researchers have recommended.

In February, a high-powered group of health organizations including research institutes, academic journals, NGOs, and funding bodies published a public commitment to “sharing data and results relevant to the current Zika crisis and future public health emergencies as rapidly and openly as possible.” Signatories included journals Nature and Science, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. National Institute of Health.

Said Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust in the statement, “Research is an essential part of the response to any global health emergency. This is particularly true for Zika, where so much is still unknown about the virus, how it is spread and the possible link with microcephaly. It’s critical that as results become available they are shared rapidly in a way that is equitable, ethical and transparent. This will ensure that the knowledge gained is turned quickly into health interventions that can have an impact on the epidemic.”

Open science has been a topic of debate for over a decade. A growing number of vocal researchers have advocated that all research funded with public funds is open sourced, and not just the articles but the actual research data sets. The logic follows similar logic to open source software. When more eyes can look at data, it is less likely the data will contain errors — and solutions can be developed jointly. Just as in software, scientists anticipate that by open sourcing more medical data, they will enable more breakthroughs by increasing the body of pre-vetted knowledge and reducing the redundancy in research efforts.

This type of information sharing did not happen effectively with last major epidemic that sparked global concern, the Ebola virus. When Ebola was raging through West Africa in the summer of 2014, a group at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. published open repository sequence data for 99 Ebola genomes taken from patients in Sierra Leone’s Kenema government hospital. This open sourcing of critical scientific data was the second instance in the outbreak. A team of international researchers had initially published three genomes from patients in Guinea in April.

For the next three months, no more genomic data was released to the public data repositories that had become the go-to source for scientists studying Ebola. The silence puzzled many prominent scientists. A formidable array of genomic sequencing technology was aimed squarely at the virus. Yet the data was not shared.

This delayed progress and troubled three of the most prominent Ebola researchers, Nathan Yozwiak, Stephen Schaffner and Pardis Sabeti. They published a plea for data sharing in the leading scientific journal Nature, titled “Make outbreak research open access.”

Sharing data among researchers has long been a thorny topic. In the cutthroat competition to place articles in top scientific journals — the key currency in academic circles — researchers have traditionally held data close to the vest so as not to jeopardize the exclusivity of their findings and, by extension, article acceptance. Conversely, for pandemics such as Ebola and influenza, security experts have feared that publishing genomic data would allow evil scientists or regimes to stand on the shoulders of upstanding researchers and use publicly published genomics data to create equally or even more lethal pathogens that can kill millions.

A decade ago, when sequencing genomes was incredibly expensive, tedious, and hard, some of the arguments for holding data closed did make sense. This provided a viable moat against rogue states and organizations. But today, the cost of DNA sequencing and synthetic biology experimentation has dropped to the point that anyone can do it; the bad guys already have the resources to unleash bioterrorism.

The good news is that there are far more people in the world who want to do good than bad. We need to bring together the hundreds of thousands of scientists who want to use technology to better the world and solve critical problems. The best way is to create communities and begin crowdsourcing critical research.



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Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.




  

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Jan 9th 2020
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Jan 9th 2020
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Jan 7th 2020
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Jan 5th 2020
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Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
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