A feedback loop of creative research that is reshaping our world.
[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]iomimicry is the new buzz word that is likely to dominate bio sciences for many decades to come. Nature in its astonishing complexity has provided human technology with a ‘how to’ template fresh from the microbiological world. Understanding how these systems work could provide a whole new generation of antibiotics, vaccines and longevity treatments that could change the nature of human society. The ramifications of applying knowledge gained from these natural systems within medicine itself is enormous – let alone how it will certainly revolutionise emerging new sciences like nanotechnology, bioinformatics and cyber biological interfaces etc.
Using the immune system as a template
Recently a Stanford University study led by Professor Mark Davis discovered that human immune cells have the capacity to ‘remember’ certain types of pathogens, and not just the ones specifically encountered before. This association enabled them to quickly recognise a new pathogen which had some similar genetic traits to previous pathogens encountered and allow the immune system to get an early start in creating type specific immune cells.
Which raises another point.
“We grow and use experimental lab mice in totally artificial, ultra-clean environments,” Davis said. “That’s nothing like the environment that we live in. The CD4 cells from adult mice in the lab environment are almost entirely in the naïve state. They may be more representative of newborns than of adults.”
Understanding the mechanism by which cross-reactivityoccurs might further allow immunologists to develop “wide-spectrum vaccines” that cover a number of infectious organisms.
William Petri, MD, PhD, chief of infectious diseases and international health at the University of Virginia described the new study as paradigm-shifting. “It was one of those rare, seminal findings that changes the way I think about the immune response,” he said.
Such breakthroughs highlight how understanding how the immune system works is fundamental not only to specifically to biomedical sciences but to emerging spin off research area’s like nanobiology, bioinformatics and even internet security.
Biomicry and internet security?
Indeed it makes me wonder just how human immune cells ‘cross reactivity’ might be used in the IT world to design better software and security measures. Certainly within the medical field products like ‘Allerhunter’ use such software to predictively track the cross reactive nature of protiens within certain allergens.
But in the newly emerging area of Artificial immune systems software algorithyms attempt to simulate the complex processes found in the human immune system utilizing AIS models which emphasize designing arti-facts which are computational algorithms and techniques using simplified models of various immunological processes and functionalities. AIS’s also try to extract ideas from the BIS (biological immune system) in order to develop better computational tools for solving science and engineering problems. Which in itself is part of the rapidly emerging cross disciplinary field of convergence science where multiple disciplines from often disparate sources converge to create not only innovative new technologies but also entirely new avenues of scientific research and methodological practice.
Dipankar Dasgupta from the University of Memphis, USA is one of the pioneers in this cutting edge field of convergence science and bioinformatics.
“From an information-processing perspective, the immune system is a remarkable parallel and distributed adaptive system with (partial) decentralized control mechanism. It uses feature extraction, signaling, learning, memory, and associative retrieval to solve recognition and classification tasks. In particular, it learns to recognize relevant patterns, remember patterns that have been seen previously, and use combinatorics to construct pattern detectors efficiently. Also, the overall behavior of the system is an emergent property of many local interactions. These remarkable information-processing abilities of the immune system provide several important aspects in the field of computation.”
He goes on to explain how the internet security systems already use a similar simplistic innate immune system, which resides on the user’s PC and applies virus-checking heuristics to COM and .EXE files. For example if an unknown virus is detected on an individual PC , then a sample is captured that contains information about the virus and is sent to a central processing system for further examination. This is analogous to how the innate immune system works, as the first line of defense. The signature extraction mechanism is akin to clon-al selection where large numbers of possible code signatures are produced randomly and each one is checked against the potential virus until a positive match is found.
On a broader scale, cloud and network computing is also being aided by the use of a ‘negative selection’ algorithm that simulates how immune cells detect pathogenic infiltration to detect IT network intrusion. Each computer runs a broadcaster, which broadcasts the source and destination of each TCP SYN packet it sees to other computers running LISYS, and a detection node, which processes the information from the broadcasters. Each detection node receives data from broadcasters and mails an administrator if it detects a novel TCP connection. The multilayered nature of the BIS defense aparatus is allowing far more modalities to be explored and employed in cyber security. As a result AIS is explored as a base template for neural networks as well as for evolutionary and DNA computation.
Chips and bits
Going a little further down the technological rabbit hole and we see the options for bio-circuitry and bio-chip implants which are designed as organic components based on natural tissue. Implants in general as they become smaller and more interactive with surrounding tissue suffer from the bodies homeostatic response to the invasive implant which is to form scar tissue. The development of scar tissue has been observed around implants used for deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s patients. Which can be a major impediment as scar tissue barriers often form between the device electrodes and the nerves they must comunicate with. Added to that issue is the problem of how to get the implant to adequatley power and connect to the surrounding nerve cells which it must communicate with.
The latest solution to this is the use of biomemetic polymers. These conducting polymers can incorporate not only the structural features that work for standard electrodes, but also provide chemical structures that increase nerve cell attachment and/or inhibit the production of scar tissue. The typical issue with organic polymers previously – the ability to carry significant currents isn’t much of an issue now when it comes to interfacing with nerve cells.
A recent break through by the University of Texas and the Univesrsity of Tokyo published in the journal Advanced Materials highlights the cross linking of engineering and materials sciences with biological and molecular sciences to mimic and replicate technology compatible with biological systems.
These transistors, which can lock on to nerves and other biological structures in 3-D while softening and morphing with the body itself, are the fruit of the two universities collaborative research. Jonathan Reeder, a graduate student in materials science and engineering and lead author of the work explained what has been achieved so far.
“The research, published in Advanced Materials, is one of the first demonstrations of transistors that can change shape and maintain their electronic properties after they are implanted in the body…Scientists and physicians have been trying to put electronics in the body for a while now, but one of the problems is that the stiffness of common electronics is not compatible with biological tissue,” he said. You need the device to be stiff at room temperature so the surgeon can implant the device, but soft and flexible enough to wrap around 3-D objects so the body can behave exactly as it would without the device. By putting electronics on shape-changing and softening polymers, we can do just that.”
Reeder goes onto to explain that the shapeform technology which allows implant transistors to soften and conform to internal body structure is still ongoing.
“We used a new technique in our field to essentially laminate and cure the shape memory polymers on top of the transistors,” said Voit, who is also a member of the Texas Biomedical Device Center. “In our device design, we are getting closer to the size and stiffness of precision biologic structures, but have a long way to go to match nature’s amazing complexity, function and organization.”
The rigid devices become soft when heated. Outside the body, the device is primed for the position it will take inside the body. During testing, researchers used heat to deploy the 2.25 millimeters diameter cylindrical device. They then implanted the device in rats. They found that after implantation, the device had morphed with the living tissue while maintaining excellent electronic properties. “The next step of the research is to shrink the devices so they can wrap around smaller objects and add more sensory components”, Reeder said.
Convergence science the Third Revolution?
This unprecedented blending of differing science methodologies to create new technologies demonstrates the growth of convergence science. A growth which appears to be pushing us towards a Kurzwiel like Singularity as multiple disciplines within science combine routinely accross national borders, insitutions and vast geographical distances to produce new breakthroughs. Hence the new term ‘Convergence Science’ where not only disciplines merge but individual projects draw many differing schools of science to aid them in creating new technolgies and new variations on existing tech.
The idea first popped up in 1962 when the first edition of Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” was published. He suggested that as science accumulated incremental gains in its understanding that it would sometimes diverge from the normal gradualistic process of scientific understanding to make sudden leaps. These leaps would occur when anomalies arose from the data which motivated individuals to propose new laws and principles outside the conventional paradigm. This idea was akin to a concept in biosciences and evolutionary biology made popular by Stephen Jay Gould. That idea was ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ where a critical mass of accumulated variables could precipitate a sudden and relatively fast shift in biological evolution. Kuhn proposed a very similar concept where paradigm shifts in conventional science like Einsteins General Relativity and Max Plancks development of Quantum theory arose from an accumulated cross linking of ideas by certain groups and individuals.
A recent white paper from MIT calls this emerging convergence science the Third revolution, following the industrial and Information revolutions, as the Life sciences, Physical sciences and Engineering combine routinely. Biomimcry is only one of such new sciences emerging from this convergence of disciplines. Bioinformatics, Synthetic biology, nanobiology, computational biology, biomaterials, system biology and tissue engineeering are some examples of the last decades’ growth in convergence science. Indeed the white paper goes on to describe an ongoing evolution of science where methodologies and research models converge to create a deeper interdisciplinary integration in the near future.
Convergence appears indeed to represent a new era of solving complex scientific problems, which is certainly not limited to, the biomedical sciences. Though the evolution of this new integration of research will not replace all of what we know as basic research by both individuals and institutions and collaborative groups, it does highlight a new direction that will enable novel opportunities to conduct more project driven tailored “high risk, high reward” and/or “use-inspired” research. Research which will reshape the genus of science in the university research communities themselves and rapidly prove to be of massive benefit to humankind and the world in general.