Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched by Kulturpop.

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched by Kulturpop.


Biotech conjures images of cloning, lab meat and mind control. But biotechnology has been fuelling humankind’s progress for thousands of years. Today we look past the fear and celebrate the promise. It’s time to Mattsplain.


Something unusual happened on last week’s show. Listeners actually liked it. Faced with that kind of confusion, Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage will usually double down and return to his Dark Side with more tales of death and destruction. But no. It seems that life springs eternal and he’s going to give positivity one last shot. It’s time we Mattsplained biotech.


Biotech is one of those words that’s often thrown around – like blockchain – but that mean very little to most people.

·      That analogy with blockchain is a really good one. 

·      People often imagine that topics like biotech and block chain are easily definable, like say artificial intelligence or the Internet.

·      Biotechnology especially is extremely broad.

·      That’s one of the reasons that we don’t talk about it here too often.

·      It tends to pop up more often on our geeks squawk show, because there will be a news item about a specific piece of biotech but that technology may not be big enough for us to consider on this show.


Presumably that means that there is some enormous breakthrough in the Biotech sphere did you want to talk about today?

·      That would be the way that we normally go about it.

·      people seem to respond very well to the hit-and-run format of last week’s show, I thought that today we could try and explain a little about what biotechnology is.

·      And then have a look at some of the stories and breakthroughs that we’ve seen in that sector this year.


Just to be clear, we are not going to be talking about really intelligent Machines that start building organic bodies to host their minds while they wipe out humanity?

·      No.


Or enhancement technologies that create a race of superhumans who will enslave everyone else?

·      No. 

·      Look, every technology has its Dark side. 

·      And often when we hear reports about biotechnology, it’s those negative aspects that gets stressed.

·      So we’ll hear stories about the dangers of crisper DNA editing.

·      Or cloning or stem cell research.

·      Or, as we talk about a lot on this show, the gradual convergence of intelligent machines and humans.


You mean where humans have so many mechanical replacement parts and machines have so many organic parts that it’s difficult to tell which is which?

·      Yes. Now, I generally take that nightmarish and negative tone because I’m trying to demonstrate how extreme the result of this technology could be if we allow it to spread unchecked.

·      It also might be that that is exactly the future that you would choose.

·      As we mentioned in a previous show, a billionaire’s nightmare might be a poor person’s paradise.

·      So, if I come onto the show and paint a picture of a future of teddy bears, cotton candy and infinite episodes of Star Trek, then people may look at the world and think the future’s going to be great and stop bothering to look around them.

·      With biotechnology we so often see the negative portrayal, that the truly incredible advances in this sector get overlooked.


Before you fill our joy cups to the brim, why don’t you explain a little more about what biotechnology is?

·      I think the term itself is quite confusing.

·      We assume the biotechnology is something new. In reality we been using biotechnology for thousands of years.

·      So when we talk about domesticating animals and cultivating and breeding plants to develop the strains of food crops that sustain us, those are examples of biotechnology.

·      When you talk about biotechnology and food, the first thing a lot of people think about is lab grown meat or chicken nuggets.

·      Which is kind of weird. Lab grown meat is lean. Nutritious. Environmentally sustainable.

·      It’s all of the things that chicken nuggets aren’t; yet when you talk about them, of the two gets you teaching for the dipping sauce?


So, to paraphrase Wikipedia, biotechnology is any technological application that uses biological systems or living organisms to make or modify things?

·      Yes. As I said, and this might be the domestication of animals.

·      It could be the hybridisation of plants.

·      We use technology all the time in every sector of our lives.

·      It would be really weird if we said that a piece of technology, say the plough, is a great thing to invent, but developing higher yielding strains of wheat is a bad thing.

·      Without strains of wheat that we can actually cultivate, what’s the point in having a plough?

·      Those technologies are absolutely essential to one another.


Presumably you going to argue that by technology is good and it’s not something that we should fear?

·      Hopefully we’re going to be a little bit more nuanced than that.

·      I think we get hung up on the bio part.

·      I think it’s healthier to focus on the technology part.

·      Some technology is good. Some technologies are bad.

·      Most technology falls somewhere in the middle.


Your magic fork?

·      No, I’m going to change my analogy this week.

·      Take guns, firearms, as an example.

·      Whether you are using a gun for hunting, target shooting or offensive or defensive purposes, it’s designed to kill or seriously injure. 

·      Most guns don’t kill people because their owners don’t try and kill people with them.

·      But that potential is there. 

·      In fact, that potential is why they exist.


And this relates to biotechnology, how?

·      When we see reports about Gene modification or DNA manipulation, we tend to get scared.

·      Whatever your views on the rights of individuals to own guns, you probably wouldn’t want to ban them completely.

·      There would be some people in society, police, the Armed Forces, me, that you would prefer to have access to that kind weaponry.

·      And the same goes for biotechnology. We should allow people to use technology to do amazing things with living organisms.

·      At the same time we should be preventing people from doing really creepy things with technology to living organisms.


That’s a really fine line though. Lab meat is creepy for me and amazing for you.

·      And there will always be those areas.

·      Which is why we have to talk about them and society decides what is acceptable.

·      From me, the idea of changing a bunch of DNA so that chickens have six legs instead of two and yield more meat is way weirder and disgusting than having it grow in a vat in a lab.

·      We have to allow people to experiment but we also have to have a set of ethics in place the places limits on those experimentations.


I’m not seeing the joy?

·      Okay. We’re exploring the fundamentals.

·      We should rejoice in our biotech achievements. 

·      Every time you sit down and have a sandwich. Or eat a plate of rice you’re enjoying the results of biotechnology.

·      So, let’s chuck the fear in the fried chicken bucket and get on with the cool stuff.


What incredible, life changing breakthroughs do you have for us?

·      I think that’s another one of those fundamental errors we make with biotechnology.

·      We assume that every development has to be enormous.

·      That it has to be as morally challenging as crispr and society altering as DNA.

·      Sometimes, those small developments and discoveries can have enormous consequences.


OK. Let me rephrase the question. What tiny, life changing breakthroughs do you have for us?

·      I don’t get this sarcasm and backchat when Richard Bradbury stands in for you.


You’re a novelty when it’s once in a while. I’m here all the time.

·      Moving on.

·      If you’re eating right now you might want to put that spoon down.

·      We talked quite often about the antibiotic scare we’re facing.

·      The increase in drug-resistant bacteria and infections and that within a couple of decades, you could potentially die from say, cutting your finger while chopping garlic.


Why do all your cool stories start with people dying?

·      Hang on. This one’s about people not dying.

·      Earlier this year in Arizona a woman developed an infection in her armpit. 

·      It was determined that it was a voracious form of the Streptococcus bacteria.

·      I’m going to say two words that make most people wince now. And it’s why I said put your food down.

·      It’s that family favourite infection: Necrotising fasciitis.

·      So, this woman in Arizona was infected and it quickly spread, eating up the skin on a third of her body.


They weren’t able to use skin grafts?

·      No, or at least only partially, because so much skin had already been eaten, there genuinely wasn’t much to spare

·      Some listeners might remember that we talked about a wound spray on Geeks last year called ReCell.

·      Because of the danger to her life, the woman’s doctors petitioned the FDA to allow them to use the spray even though hasn’t cleared all its approvals yet.


How does it work?

·      Normally when of wound heals, it heals from the edges in.

·      With ReCell, a small sample of healthy tissue is taken from patient and treated with an enzyme that breaks down into individual skins.

·      You can then spray those individual cells over the wound.

·      Once on the wound, the cells divide and spread. So instead of working from the outside in which can take months, the healing is happening everywhere at once and as the skin cells spread they join together.


Did it cure the woman?

·      They used it in collaboration with a graft technology called meshed autograft which used a piece of finely stretched skin.

·      And the results were simply amazing. When the dressings were removed a week later the wound was 95% healed.

·      You start to think about the implications with this technology.

·      You can treat antibiotic resistant wounds. 

·      It speeds recovery time.

·      It’s a technology that can be quickly and relatively easily implemented.

·      And I’m conjecturing here, but I imagine it will also help to reduce scarring.

·      To the impact for people with serious skin or burn injuries could be absolutely tremendous.


When we come back: biotechnology and the brain.




Before the break we were talking about reasons to embrace rather than fear biotechnology. We promised you the brain, and delving into the grey goo is something that Matt has never been afraid to do.

·      It’s true. I am fascinated with the way the human brain works.

·      I watched a fantastic TED Talk this week by a cognitive scientist called Lera Broditsky about the way language shapes the way we think.

·      She pointed out that in languages that have a masculine and feminine case the adjectives we use to describe object reflects their gender. 

·      As a result, different languages describe the same objects in very different terms.

·      She use the example of a bridge.

·      In languages where the word for bridge is feminine, it is often described with terms like beautiful.

·      The languages where bridge is a masculine word, you see them being described in stereotypically masculine ways: as strong etc.

·      So even though our brains are all the same, culture still has really strong impact on the way we think.


Is that biotechnology?

·      No. But it helps to understand the way different cultures respond to science and technology.

·      Whether it’s viewed as something positive or whether it’s viewed with suspicion.

·      And of course when it comes to introducing technology into our brains, that’s one of the areas where we tend to start worrying about biotechnology.

·      Biotechnology has had a relationship with our brains for longer than you might imagine.


You mean deep brain stimulation?

·      Yes. Deep brain stimulation is when you have wires implanted in your brain that send electrical signals are sent to specific sites to Treat various neurological disorders.

·      And a technology that we’ve been using since around 1997. 

·      It’s used to treat parkinson’s, tremors, OCD.

·      It’s hoped that it will also help with chronic pain, major depression and PTSD.

·      And it may also help in Alzheimer’s disease.


How does it work?

·      We don’t really know. It’s one of those things that we have ideas why it works, we’re not sure exactly why, but the improvements in patients are measurable and provable.

·      Nearly as important as its effectiveness is that it’s reversible, unlike a lot of other brain surgery techniques.

·      And that’s quite important because we don’t really understand brain.

·      Or rather we only have an incomplete picture of how it works, although that picture, kind of similar to the Recell technology we talked about before the break…

·      That knowledge is expanding all the time as different parts of the research linkup to give us a much broader perspective.

·      So, having treatments that are controllable and reversible when we are working in the semi-dark market of our minds is really important.


And it’s the same for Alzheimer’s?

·      Maybe. A small and very limited test on three people by a team at Ohio State University suggest that it may be useful in some patients.


By restoring memory?

·      One of the reasons that Alzheimer’s is hard to treat this because we don’t know what causes it.

·      We know what it does to people, and people with see various types of the disease broadly follow a degenerative pattern.

·      But we don’t know exactly how or why or when those degenerations start.

·      Some of the more recent research into the disease suggests that it may be present for many many years before any of the symptoms or effects manifest themselves.

·      So, going back to your question, they’re trying to restore memory. In fact the tests that have been run on restoring memory with Deep Brain Stimulation have proven ineffective.


The Ohio research team is looking at other aspects of Alzheimer’s?

·      Yes, they’re looking at the problem-solving and decision-making areas of the brain.

·      Those also areas that are lost to the disease.

·      Improving in those areas can increase the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients.

·      It can enable them to dress themselves or even prepare their own meals.

·      A lot of the simple things we take for granted, such as putting your underwear on underneath your Clothes rather than over it.


Three patients isn’t really a study.

·      At this point no. However, they scored a slower rate of degeneration when compared against a comparable group of 96 Alzheimer’s sufferers.

·      Of course, this is just a first step. More research needs to be done using much larger groups of subjects.

·      There is a risk of a placebo effect. The researchers may have inadvertently picked three subjects who are naturally more resistant to the disease.

·      The larger point is that we don’t need to fear this kind of biotechnology just because it’s invasive and involves the brain.


[statement not question]It’s not a form of mind control.

·      Exactly.

·      Normally, when we talk about biotechnology and the brain we talk about the scary stuff.

·      Linking your brain to Wi-Fi. Mind control. Designing a more submissive race of people.

·      And it’s true that there are some biotechnology brain developments that could be used in other ways.

·      And there is a colossal amount of research going on in this area.


I think you’ve mentioned that ultimate goal of creating chips that can store all our memories and archive them on-demand like Netflix.

·      Depending on how you look at it, that could be an incredible future or your worst nightmare.

·      Anyone who had that implant would have a huge advantage over their colleagues at work who didn’t have this kind of enhancement, for example.

·      For someone who’d suffered traumatic brain injury or a stroke, that kind of technology could give them their life back.


How close are we to that kind of scenario?

·      You probably won’t be surprised to hear that our old friends at DARPA, the US military research agency, have been funding a lot of technology in this area.

·      In April this year the Journal of engineering published a military funded study into a prosthetic memory system.

·      Again, it was a very small study around 15 patients.

·      The patients played simple Computer game while the system recorded the activity of the neurons in the hippocampus.

·      As the trial progressed, the delay between seeing an image on-screen and having to recall what was on that screen was increased, in some instances to 75 minutes.

·      This allowed the system to really monitor what was happening inside each patient’s brain as they were using the short-term memory.


How do you get from there to actually improving their memory?

·      In some ways it’s similar to the deep brain stimulation.

·      You’re getting a chart of the electrical activity related to that short-term memory recall which is specific to that person.

·      So it’s almost like a key or password.

·      So you use that code to stimulate the person’s hippocampus by stimulating the areas of the brain that light up for your short term memory.

·      The trial showed an improvement in recall in all the groups of above 30 per cent.


That’s still a long way from a memory chip.

·      It is. How long it will take for us to get there is impossible to say.

·      Some apparently simple problems, like curing the cold, are strangely intractable.

·      Other seemingly complex situations like journeying outside our solar system are weirdly possible.

·      I guess the broader point is that we tend to focus on what we imagine as the negative consequences and this kind of technology.

·      If you look at deep brain stimulation, as we’ve said, that’s a technology that we’ve had for over 20 years.

·      But we haven’t seen any rush from people over the past 20 years to have brain implants for whatever cosmetic reason.


That’s true. But we are seeing people using CRISPR technology to hack their DNA.

·      That goes back to what I was saying about complicated things being easy and easy things being complicated.

·      While we’re talking about it, I think it was a story that came out a middle of July that suggests that the results of hacking your DNA maybe a lot more unpredictable and was first thought.

·      Which strikes at the core of what we think CRISPR is.

·      One of the things that the most excite scientists about CRISPR is, that it’s very precise.

·      You’re editing the genetic code in a specific cell. So when the cell repairs itself it will be missing a few letters, and that’s how we disable genes and remove diseases or promote certain properties or qualities over others.


Are we seeing mutations in those cells?

·      What a team at the UK’s Wellcome Sanger Institute has been researching is whether those deletions are more widespread than we think.

·      They’ve found that in as much as 20% of the people and test animals they tracked, those deletions were much larger.

·      Rather than a few letters of the code, there were hundreds and in some cases thousands of letters long.

·      And there’s a chance that those much longer changes could create a cancer risk, causing potentially harmful changes in the cell.


Is it an actual risk or more of a theoretical one? The kind of editing that CRISPR is currently used for is very narrow and specific.

·      For sure. Looking at where we are now, there doesn’t seem to be much risk.

·      It goes back to what I was saying last week – that we shouldn’t plan for the technology we have today, but look at where we think it will be tomorrow and the day after that.

·      Scientists are trying to develop treatments that might involve editing billions of cells. At that scale, even a tiny percentage of mutations could manifest as a serious cancer risk.


Why hasn’t anyone found this before?

·      Because the work is so narrow and targeted, researchers have generally focused on DNA and cell changes around the target site. 

·      The Wellcome team looked far more broadly, and found that the changes have an impact beyond the cell that was changed.

·      It’s a bit like deleting a paragraph in a word document. If you give the document a quick scan read, you may not notice that section is missing, but omitting that section can completely change the context and meaning of that document.

·      With DNA, if you’ve deleted the information, you won’t be able to see that it’s triggered a mutation unless you look beyond that target region.


You’re supposed to end with good news… 

·      It is good news. And it shows how robust and adaptable and amazing the biotechnology industry is.

·      Lots of variations of CRISPR editing are being developed.

·      Including methods that don’t alter a gene’s DNA but, instead, control how active the gene is. 

·      So instead of switching it on or off, you’re using it like a dimmer switch for a lightbulb, to increase or decrease its intensity. 

·      The fact that the technology is so new is one of the reasons that you shouldn’t rush to use this kind of tech as a cure-all for improving intelligence, or muscle tone or any of the cosmetic purposes that get people’s imagination firing.

·      That kind of sums up the state of the biotech industry for me.

·      It’s exciting, there’s enormous potential, but we still need to know a lot more about what using it actually means before we widen it beyond very specific medical applications.


Matt Armitage