What Watson did next

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

Impressed by Watson’s Jeopardy! victory? Found yourself with the urge to build your own (scaled down) supercomputer artificial intelligence in your basement using nothing but off-the-shelf hardware and open-source software? IBM’s very own Tony Pearson has got your back. [via MetaFilter; please bear in mind that not all basements will be eminently suited to a research project of this scale]

Meanwhile, fresh from whuppin’ on us slow-brained meatbags, Watson’s seeking new challenges in the world of medicine [via BigThink]:

The idea is for Watson to digest huge quantities of medical information and deliver useful real-time information to physicians, perhaps eventually in response to voice questions. If successful, the system could help medical experts diagnose conditions or create a treatment plan.

… while other health-care technology can work with huge pools of data, Watson is the first system capable of usefully harnessing the vast amounts of medical information that exists in the form of natural language text—medical papers, records, and notes. Nuance hopes to roll out the first commercial system based on Watson technology within two years, although it has not said how sophisticated this system will be.

Ah, good old IBM. My father used to work for them back in the seventies and early eighties, and it’s kind of amusing to see that their age-old engineering approach of building an epic tool before looking for a use to put it to hasn’t changed a bit…


We can reprint you

Paul Raven @ 21-02-2011

Speaking of news reappearing a year later (we’re risking some sort of multi-node self-reflective temporal singularity here at Futurismic, folks, so hang on to your hats): this time last year The Economist ran a piece on “printing” human organs for transplant; this week, we have a piece at Discovery on a bioprinter that takes a few cells as a sample and knocks up a sheet of new skin [via BigThink]. All good news… though it’s worth remembering the spectre of genetic intellectual property disputes lurks in the wings awaiting its musical cue (I’m thinking bassoons with a hint of cello, plus stabs of Moog voluntary), meaning that spats about the copyright status of fabbed creations may shift from discussing physical reproductions of optical illusions to claiming someone cloned your liver without your permission. As snarkily suggested last week, at least there’s plenty of work in the pipeline for the legal professions. Shame we can’t just print them off when we need them and then churn them up for feedstock, hmmm?


Bikers, car accidents, anti-authoritarianism and cat shit

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2011

This post at NextNature rounds up some of the latest reseach into my all-time favourite parasitic lifeform, Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma, so the theories go, has an effect on the psychology of its hosts; as part of its original lifescycle, it makes rats less afraid of cats, thus increasing its chance of finding a new feline host to colonise. But it gets into us people-monkeys, too, where the effects appear to be a mild version of B-movie bodysnatching:

The effects are sex-dependent. Toxo makes men more distrustful of authority, more jealous, and more likely to engage in rule-bending and breaking. Male motorcyclists are disproportionately affected.  In a perverse twist, motorists of either sex who have T. gondii are three to four times more likely to die in car accidents, either from their increased disregard of the speed limit, or because the parasite wears down reaction times. There’s even shaky evidence that T. gondii correlates with success on the football field, at least in predicting the winners of the World Cup.

Women get the sweeter half of the brain parasite. Women harboring T. Gondii are considered by others to be more cheerful, warmhearted, and sexually attractive. They are also outspend their uninfected sisters when it comes to clothing. In some ways Toxo is the microbial mascot of romantic comedies, turning women into spendy social butterflies, and their dates into over-masculine dolts. But take care: Before you go out to find some infectious cat feces to gussy up your social appeal, it’s important to point out that the personality changes are statistically significant but still only minor. Researchers still disagree as to how and even if Toxo alters behavior. It could be that the personality predisposes people to the infection, and not the other way around.

This is the more cautious end of Toxoplasma theory, especially when compared to the notion that it might be the root cause of schizophrenia (which has also been blamed on retroviral gene-jacking). I still find it to be a massive (if rather creepy subspecies of) sensawunda kick; unnoticed civilisational symbiosis FTW!

Bonus points to NextNature for including two amazing images in that post: the first is the well-known wall-of-death-motorcyclist-with-lion-in-sidecar shot, which is one of my all-time favourite images of all time; the second is of two scientists watching a woman with a towel tied across her face shoving her head into a well-used kitty litter-tray. SRSLY.


Biopharming: transgenic animals as medicine-factories

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2011

That sound you can hear is sound of bioconservatives gnashing their teeth in horror: COSMOS Magazine has a decent long piece on transgenic animals and the role they may play in tomorrow’s pharmacology:

The greatest impact biopharming will have on the world’s medicine cabinet is one of supply – it will dramatically boost the availability of biopharmaceuticals, also known as ‘biologics’. Biologics are defined as medicinal products extracted from or produced by biological systems – many are made by genetically manipulating cells of bacterial, animal or human origin.

The majority of biologics are proteins such as hormones, enzymes, growth factors and antibodies, which can be collectively called therapeutic proteins, as well as viral proteins for use in vaccines.

This method of drug manufacture will make things cheaper… but not to the degree that you might expect:

A review of the scientific literature shows that a slew of antibody-based drugs manufactured in transgenic animals are poised to enter the market as soon as their branded competitors’ patents expire.

Traditionally, this would result in the transgenic animal-manufactured drugs being labelled as generic drugs – a non-patented, cheaper alternative to brand-name medications with the same active ingredient.

But because the antibodies that the transgenic animals produce are extremely complex monoclonal antibodies – large protein-based structures that specifically recognise one part of a target molecule – no two are alike. This means that, unlike the less complex ‘small molecule’ (non protein) structure of most drugs, they cannot technically be called generics.

“When GTC Biotherapeutics start marketing Herceptin from transgenic cows, it will be classed as a biosimilar, not a biogeneric. We may even end up having a better Herceptin, what we’d call a ‘biobetter’,” notes Heiden.

The ‘better’ refers to aspects of a drug’s profile that may be more desirable than those of its competitor, such as better efficacy or fewer side effects. These traits will affect pricing, but biosimilars will still be cheaper.

“The cost savings will be in the order of 30% – not the 80% price drops we see when a generic small molecule drug goes to market,” says Heiden. That’s because of where in the manufacturing process the savings impact. “Where we save money is at the front end. But the downstream cost of goods, which is about half of the total, is the same regardless of whether you are using cell culture or animals on a farm. You still have to extract and purify your product.”

Well, you do if you’re playing by the rules… I’ll bet there’s plenty of corners that can be cut if you’re not too bothered about meeting safety standards. Hmmm, the ideas for my genetic police procedural are all falling rapidly into place…


Snakes in a Vein

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2011

Your futureshock phobia headline of the day, courtesy of Wired UK: “Snake-bots slither inside your body during surgery“. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!


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