BLOG - Revolution Bioengineering
15 Dec

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the life sciences

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a few days ago.

I have opinions about science journalism – especially when it comes to the life sciences - and I dislike the tropes that make up a lot of these stories: the flash of insight, first confusion and then a clear and compelling solution, a desperate race to save/discover/preserve/advance. Often, 40 years of research is compressed beyond recognition to fit one of these neat boxes, and the slow steady work of investigation is glossed over. It’s work to tell these stories well, acknowledging the process of science and complexity of interactions behind a discovery.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the well-told stories. HeLa cells are ubiquitous in science – they have been used to investigate everything from polio to aging. Ten years of detective work and intense personal effort by author Rebecca Skloot brought her to the origin of those cells, and the resulting book is a densely interconnected narrative about the people who practice science and their culture. On each page, Ms. Skloot sets the abstract scientific world immediately adjacent to the one we live in every day.

When I brought up this book to a scientist friend of mine, he said he’d read it, and he had some thoughts on the book. “The science story was really well told. But the parts about the family, the parts about the Lacks? Those were boring and didn’t hold my attention at all.”

“The science story was really well told. But the parts about the family, the parts about the Lacks? Those were boring and didn’t hold my attention at all.”

The HeLa cell’s rise to fame is compelling – you watch the progress of decades of tissue culture on the page, from the “That’s weird” moment of discovery to the production of billions of cells for use everywhere in the world. But they aren’t the heart of the story.

HeLa cells came from a tumor that looked like grape jello, growing on the cervix of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Immortal Life was written because this scientific discovery was wrapped up in a black mother of five in 1960’s Maryland relying on a white man in a position of power to help her. With all of the social tensions held in that sentence, maybe it isn’t surprising that the black woman was lost.

Scientists are trained to zero in on the curious and the unexpected. The doctor had never seen a tumor like that before, and he never saw one after that. It was different, and therefore interesting. Working at John’s Hopkins he’d seen a lot of black women though, poor black women who had larger families and were not in the best health. To the doctor – and to my friend – Henrietta Lacks was less interesting than the thing growing inside of her.

This was 50 years ago, and since then doctor-patient relationships have gone through dramatic change. But in other areas, science and the people who practice it remain remarkably similar. Science can still see itself as isolated from the rest of the world, separate from politics and culture. In gathering input or sharing information, communities can still be treated as obstacles rather than partners. There is still surprise that language meant for scientific peers could be confusing to other audiences, conveying anything from indifference to the exact opposite of the intended message. One of my scientist friends finds Henrietta Lacks and her family boring.

Until The Immortal Life, research into the family or the origin of the cells used around the world was carried out with an attitude of objectificaton. The reporter that says “I just thought they might make some interesting color for the scientific story” is a reflection the scientist that says “The parts about the family were boring.” The Lacks are not real people in any meaningful way, they are vehicles for the story of scientific progress.

If that sounds utterly unfair, consider this excerpt from the laboratory assistant present at the autopsy, looking at the body of Henrietta Lacks and noticing her bright red toenails:

“When I saw those toenails,’ Mary told me years later,”I almost fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails and it hit me for the first time that all those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Science abstracts. It takes apart complicated interconnected objects and categorizes the pieces, splits a person into bones and muscle and brains and then splits those organs into even smaller pieces, into individual cells. Today we separate individual cells into proteins and small molecules and DNA and as we do, we learn more about the starstuff we are made of. Science abstracts. But scientists have to do more than that.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author sets out to make the Lacks real people. While most of the scientists involved assure her that Henrietta and her family were willing participants in this story, one scientist takes a few minutes of time to apologize to the Lacks family for the way they’d been ignored, 40 years after the fact. No one ever had done that before. He suggested that his institution, Johns Hopkins, had screwed up. No one had ever done that before. He offers an art piece to the family, dyeing their mother’s chromosomes in fluorescent colors, and showing them the beauty in her contribution. No one had ever done that before. He explained that the cancer that killed their mother, the cancer that gave rise to the HeLa cells, that cancer was not hereditary, and would not kill them too. No one had ever done that before either.

He explained that the cancer that killed their mother, the cancer that gave rise to the HeLa cells, that cancer was not hereditary, and would not kill them too. No one had ever done that before either.

The scientist didn’t need to do those things, but it made a difference. These are the questions that the Lacks family ask when they are finally able to talk with an expert that sees them as people:

“Everybody always talking about cells and DNA – but I don’t understand what’s DNA and what’s her cells?”

“Wait a minute – none of our mother’s regular cells are still living? Just her cancer cells?”

“If those our mother’s cells, how come they ain’t black even though she was black.”

It’s easy to disregard these questions as uneducated, especially when they’re asked in an unfamiliar dialect. So let me rephrase them here: What is the relationship between DNA and cells? Can my mother be reduced to the DNA within her cells, is that all there is to her? How does genetic information become part of the world we know, the dark skin or warm hands or friendly smile of someone we love? And here’s a version of the question that we might be more familiar with – If I add a gene from a fish to a tomato, will it taste like fish?

What is the relationship between DNA and cells? Can my mother be reduced to the DNA within her cells, is that all there is to her? How does genetic information become part of the world we know, the dark skin or warm hands or friendly smile of someone we love?

Sometimes, these are questions are requests for information. More often they are questions about the concept of wholeness and how the self is linked to the DNA. When scientists provide strictly informational answers, they’re ignoring the fact that they are now part of a philosophical discussion on the nature of the self and the idea of completeness.

These concepts – you could use the word soul if you wanted – have inextricably worked themselves into the discussion around the building blocks of the life sciences for most people. In this situation, a technical explanation doesn’t just answer the wrong question, it makes the person asking the question feel as if the scientist is saying “Don’t ask that – it doesn’t matter.”

It does matter though. The questions asked of today’s life science tools by parents and grandparents are the same questions asked back through the decades, beyond the introduction of genetic engineering, straight back through the dawn of tissue engineering. The hysteria generated by the media is the same hysteria. When George Church suggests that we’d need an adventurous woman to bring the reconstructed genome of a Neanderthal to life, the ghost of Henry Harris rises into the headlines, shouting that we can create a “mape” by joining the eggs of man and ape. The fear the public has of prideful amoral science gone awry is the same fear it has always had. The gulf in understanding between scientist and non-scientist is perhaps even wider than it was before, even if it is not institutionalized in the same way.

I’m not sure what the whole answer is to this is, but I know that it isn’t a crash course in molecular biology or derisive comments or reassurance that no, that won’t happen. I think it starts with hearing the care people have for their family and their business and their health instead of focusing on the technical inaccuracies of their question. Thanking them for having the courage to ask and for giving you the opportunity to answer couldn’t hurt, and neither would having the grace to say “I disagree” without attempting to persuade them that your position is the right one or being offended that they do not share it. Maybe most importantly, we might acknowledge that science does not have all the answers.

We have the power to bridge this gap in a compassionate and caring way, but first, we have to have the courage to share that there is more to us than what we do in the laboratory.

There are those, like my friend, who will argue that this discussion is not part of science. This is some other type of thing that has nothing to do with precision or measurement or discovery, the processes that form the foundation of unbiased, dispassionate discovery. He has a point – the process of science doesn’t allow for metaphysical questions. But science doesn’t get done without scientists, and scientists are people first and foremost. We must be able to come back from the abstractions that help us learn about the world, in order to participate in the much messier world we live in.

This is the first of what I hope will be a long series of writings that encourage scientists, especially new scientists, to let their humanity shine through their work and into their conversations. I’m going to work on shining a light on those scientists who see parallels between protein engineering and writing Shakespeare, the minds that encourage exploration and unexpected connection in their laboratory. Let the machines count and measure–that is what they do best. Let the scientists tell stories about the world.

10 Sep

Where’s Revolution Bioengineering?

It’s been three thoughtful months for Revolution Bioengineering since the crowdfunding campaign ended. That was the end of the road for us at the RevBio team – we didn’t make our goal and the team couldn’t survive another year on hope and determination alone. But the color changing flowers are in motion.

The Weeds

Often, entrepreneurs idolize a technology that doesn’t actually solve the problem at hand. But in our case, it wasn’t the color changing flower that was important, it was the idea that biotechnology could be made accessible in an unexpected way. We fell in love with the problem – effecting social change with beautiful biotechnology.

The color changing flowers were a way to bridge a gap in understanding, an exciting new way to bring complicated science home in a very tangible way. By pairing our social mission with a practical economic goal, we thought we had found a way to fund a path towards an essential conversation that would go on to impact all of biotechnology.

In reality, while color changing flowers were essential to our social mission, they were underwhelming to the floral industry. And it turned out that the traits that would have made an impact in the floral industry didn’t have the instant, magical, appeal of a flower that changes color. In short, our two goals put us in direct conflict with ourselves. We had built the wrong entity to achieve our social mission, and the social mission diminished our ability to solve industrially relevant problems.

The Garden

Beautiful biotechnology intrigued the public, inspiring gardeners, artists, and scientists alike. We connected with artists in England and the Netherlands, and right now researchers in the Netherlands and New York who joined the cause and are in the process of building the flower. One version is shown in the picture below: It goes from white to hot pink.

Color-changing flowers are moving forward, but they will be introduced as part of a public discussion rather than as a product of a profit-seeking entity. I’m converting Revolution Bioengineering to the entity it should have been at the start: a non-profit organization dedicated to beautiful biotechnology.

I’m excited about the shift. I’ve realized that communicating and teaching are at the heart of what I want to do, and being able to share my perspective on biotechnology has been an incredible experience so far. People are excited about the idea that biotechnology can amaze and delight in the same way that today’s electronic technology adds another layer of experience to life. The concept brought RevBio to Portugal, where we spoke about beautiful biotechnology at a Thought for Food. It took me to Germany, where I gave a TEDx talk on applied biology and how we use the knowledge we’ve gained through decades of basic research to discover and to innovate. And in California we spoke to our own industry from a communications standpoint, to other industries about the challenges and potentials of biotechnology, and to executives from around the world about how biotechnology will play a role in the future.

New challenges

This summer, Nikolai conducted a job search that’s landed him in Virginia, putting his ideas to work in an established biotech company with the infrastructure and runway to make them real. While I’m sad the team has to split up, I know he’ll be an exceptional asset at the company he’s joined.

I spent this summer with Singularity University, an organization with a reputation for unbridled optimism about the future and unfettered enthusiasm for the way technology can shape the world. The difficult professional choices I was facing after RevBio had left me disillusioned. But the dedication of the students, faculty, and staff to cultivating a generation of caring and thoughtful entrepreneurs went a long way towards helping me rebuild my sense of wonder and excitement.

I was also privileged to participate in the SynBio LEAP fellowship program. During our week at Asilomar, we gained insight from regulators, advocacy groups, industry, and academia, and strengthened our own visions of the future for the field. For me, that vision included a framework for building trust between consumers, producers, and developers of applied biology.

The simple fact is, I’m still in love with the problem. The conversation about biotechnology is an essential one, and one that will only continue to grow in importance as biological knowledge is applied in new and different ways. I’ve been pleased to see a shift in the way genetically modified foods in particular are being discussed throughout the media, but the discussion about biotechnology, GMOs and how we relate to nature remains a difficult one. It is critical that we discuss these advances in a way that brings together different worldviews rather than driving them apart.

I’m happy to say I will be working on building these productive conversations in my next chapter. The project started at LEAP is growing into OneSky, a collaboration to develop the values shared between consumers, advocacy groups and industry and establish a standard of ethics, quality, and process in applied biology. I’ll be able to dive into these conversations knowing that we’re working towards a common goal – a more beautiful future.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams – E. Roosevelt

24 Apr

Time to Grow

We didn't make the crowdfunding goal, but we're till growing
We didn't make the crowdfunding goal, but we're till growing

We didn’t make the crowdfunding goal, but we’re till growing

Hi everyone,

The campaign is over and we’ve raised an incredible $21,000! Every single one of you made a huge impact in this campaign – tweets, posts, articles, and most importantly contributions. Thank you so much for getting us this far.

People love the idea of beautiful biotechnology. Our artist partners have shared that museums and gardens are lining up to take part in the color changing flower art installation. We also have several scientists who will be sharing expertise and lab space to develop this flower over the next year.

We may have missed our mark on the crowdfunding campaign, but beautiful biology will continue on. We hope you will follow along with us for the next phase of Revolution Bio.

Keira & Nikolai
The RevBio Team

03 Apr

21 more days of color changing flowers!

Flowers, finally!

Flowers, finally!

Crocus are popping up, daffodils are everywhere, and gardeners are venturing out to look at their plots. It’s time to start thinking about which annuals you’re going to plant!

We’ve extended our crowdfunding campaign til Apr 23 to make sure everyone has a chance to pre-order the color changing petunia. And, we’ve updated the crowdfunding site with some new images and descriptions of the prizes. Check it out and go get your flower!

02 Apr

From color-changing flowers to deer-resistant tulips

Spring is here! Your tulips might just be poking out of the ground – or they might have already been eaten by deer.

But what if you could buy deer-resistant tulips?

Deer eating tulipsRevolution Bioengineering would love to make that happen. They are plant scientists, they have a passion for flowers and have enough ideas to fill a whole new garden. However, tulips can take five to seven years to mature, and that’s a long time to develop a product for a new company. So instead they’ve picked a quicker project: Color changing flowers.

In collaboration with scientists in the Netherlands and New York, RevBio is bringing petunias that change color to the garden in 2017. Their first flower goes from white to red when you share a beer with it – think of it as drinking buddy!

Our team is looking to the garden community to get these flowers into the ground with an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign. You can pre-order your color-changing flower and jumpstart development of other varieties like their next design, a petunia that goes from pink to blue and back again, using the plant’s internal clock to change colors every 12 hours.

color change flowersThat’s only the beginning for RevBio. CEO Keira Havens shares “Plants have incredible networks that they use to navigate their changing environment. We can work with these designs to breed all sorts of amazing flowers with new colors, scents, and patterns.” COO Nikolai Braun adds “In addition to aesthetics, we’d like to develop plants that use their resources more efficiently, and perform more robustly in the garden. I’m from Colorado and every year it snows in the middle of May – I’d love to be able to plant annuals in April and have them survive that last storm.”

02 Apr

Happy April!

 

Geemo can't detect other GMOs - just itself

Geemo can’t detect other GMOs – just itself

Hope you had a great April 1!  It seems like the world is back to normal now, but if you’re like me you probably spend a little too much time playing Google maps Pacman and wishing that Tesla’s parking ticket avoiding cars were available for sale.

Our April Fools joke, Geemo the GMO detector, got some interesting attention too. To come up with Geemo, we just looked at our color-changing flower in a new way: it’s engineered to turn purple. Therefore, when it turns purple, you know there’s a GMO around… Geemo!

We got the idea when a woman at SxSW suggested that we bioengineer a GMO detector.  The conversation started out pleasant, but once she learned that we were doing GMO work, her whole mood changed, she became visibly uncomfortable, and she made a comment as she walked away along the lines that “we need to create a plant that can detect GMOs and will turn a putrid brown when it encounters one.” That gave us a chuckle– A GMO plant that can detect GMOs.  Delightfully absurd for an April fools prank.

It turns out that a lot of people are interested in a GMO detector. People want information, and they want to understand how technology impacts them. We hope we’ve been able to do this at RevBio by communicating clearly and starting conversations – Geemo or not, our color changing flower is a pretty cool innovation.

 

01 Apr

Meet Geemo, the GMO Detector!

This little flower turns red in the presence of GMOs

This little flower turns red in the presence of GMOs

Find out if there are GMOs in your home with Geemo!

There is increasing concern about GMO safety in our post-agrobacterium world. Recognizing the need for increased consumer empowerment on this issue as well as an unmet need for more GMO transparency, researchers at Revolution Bioengineering are developing ‘Geemo’, a simple, easy to use, plant-based GMO detector that can detect the GMOs in your house.

Geemo is a white petunia that looks just like the petunias your grandma grows, but it contains a secret GMO detection system. Dr. Nikolai Braun, Revolution’s lead scientist described the way the system works to us: “All you need to do is pour a little beer into the petunia to activate the system. If there is a GMO nearby, the flowers will turn red.”

The petunia remains purple for five days allowing the user ample time to identify the source of the GMO. The simple yet effective detection system relies on anthocyanin production of the petunia—the same naturally occurring pigment molecules that color all petunias.

There already are some PCR-based detection kits available for GMOs, however these require specialized laboratory equipment that the average household doesn’t have. CEO Keira Havens shared that “Right now, there is a lot of fear and confusion about what GMOs are and where they can be found, and people want to know how they can distinguish between GMO and non-GMO products. Home detection kits are the way to inform and educate people.”

Learn more here.

27 Mar

Bay Area flower walk

15 Mar

Seize Control of Success: Making Goals Work for You

BradHofmannWe have a great guest post from Brad Hofmann, founder of Head First.  Brad has melded his extensive professional expertise in counseling psychiatry and university-level basketball and baseball coaching to develop an exciting program of mental preparation and performance coaching for all aspects of life- business, parenting, group dynamics, etc.  He shared with us some of his thoughts on goal setting related to the business world.

*****************

Many people have goals, but the way they organize and/or approach those goals can be inefficient or even counter-productive.  The good news is that a few simple tools can help you formalize your goals and keep your focus on goal achievement.*

First off, keep in mind two types of goals:

Result goals are end points — what people often think of when they set goals.

Example: If you are giving a sales presentation, your result goal would likely be to make the sale.

Process goals are the steps that you decide you must take to accomplish the result goal.

Example:

Your process goals for the sales presentation might be:

  • to research your potential buyer and his/her company thoroughly prior to the presentation
  • to set up a relevant demonstration of your product
  • to utilize breathing and relaxation techniques to help you stay calm and focused so you project confidence during your presentation.

smart goal setting concept

(Note: These are rudimentary examples.  If I were working with this person, I would likely suggest these preliminary goals be turned into SMART goals –Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.)

Sometimes, even people who have a strong grasp of and focus on their result goals have only a vague understanding and/or focus on process goals, which can be their downfall.

Your day-to-day focus should be on your process goals rather than your result goals.  Process goals focus on your actions (which are completely under your control), rather than the results (which often are not).

Example: You do control your research, your demonstration, and your breathing and relaxation.

You do not control whether the client has the money for a purchase (or whether their boss decides she wants to buy from her brother-in-law instead of you) and so you do not have complete control over whether your presentation leads to a sale.

Many people judge their success or failure solely on the end results and thereby lose out on the satisfaction and confidence that can arise from process goal victories.

Example: if you gave a good, relevant demonstration and projected confidence by staying calm and focused, you should celebrate your own success even if the end result of this presentation was not a sale (this will help you in the next presentation).

Focusing on process goals lets you measure your success based on your own actions (i.e., achievement of process goals) rather than evaluating yourself solely on end results or the opinion of others.  Taking control over your own success vs. failure can make you more resilient when positive end results are not immediate (as is often the case in a new venture).

fear

In addition, when you focus primarily on result goals, you are being future oriented (results lie in the future).  Unfortunately, fear also lurks in the future. Having a future-based orientation can bring fear, especially fear of failure, into play.  [If you think about being anxious or fearful, it is often caused by concern about what is going to happen next.  What if the plane crashes or what if I totally bomb on this presentation?]  Fear can severely reduce your effectiveness (wasted time worrying instead of getting things done, wasted energy….) and it can make you less likely to take on a challenge.

Example: You are so focused on the fear of a failing sales presentation that you have trouble getting your preparation research started or you postpone the presentation to avoid potential failure.

Focusing on process goals instead helps you keep your focus on your actions, which occur in the present.  The “zone”, which is where you should strive to be working, is found in the present.  By focusing on process goals, and staying in the present, you give yourself the greatest likelihood of getting into the “zone”.

I don’t want to leave you with the idea that results and result goals are not important.  They absolutely are.  To maximize your success, the key is to set specific times to review progress toward a desired result goal so that you can assess whether you have the right process goals in place.  In general, focus should remain on process goals aside from these specific, pre-determined times for review of result goals.

 

* The work of Harvey Dorfman has had a major influence on my views of goals.  Although much of Dorfman’s written work on goal setting involves goal setting for athletes, I have found that many of the concepts he discusses are applicable to other types of performance (work, school, social, etc.).

10 Mar

A visit with artist Tom Varani

Tom Varani is an amazingly talented artist from Denver that has created an amazing print in support of our beautiful biology crowdfunding campaign.

I had heard about Tom many years ago through my network of friends, but I only met him in 2013 at his sister’s wedding where he had created a massive multi-panel mural of sunflowers–large enough to fill an entire wall of the reception hall.

Tom Varani's beautiful herd of elephants click to enlarge!

Tom Varani’s beautiful herd of elephants
Click to enlarge!

Tom recently invited me down to the opening night of a brand new gallery in Denver called Green Spaces Gallery. Green Spaces is an office co-working space that has a cavernous meeting/event area, and they recently decided to fill the walls of that space with art. Tom, his wife Andrea Pilner (also super talented artist!) are in the first group of artists to be featured at gallery.

On display were some of Tom’s elephant herd. Tom has painted quite a few elephants over the last several years, and each of them are enormous, intricately detailed, and stunning. He wants to save elephants from the needless butcher resulting from the ivory trade, and is involved with some causes to support that end.

But what I was really down there to see was his sketchbook. In order that everybody can start a new conversation on biotechnology, even if they are from countries where we won’t be able to ship petunias due to biotechnology regulations, I asked Tom to help us out with a custom piece of artwork.

tom sketchbook

Tom’s sketchbook– “wildtype” petunias on the left, evolution into mechanical petunias on the right
Click to enlarge– It’s beautiful!

About a year ago I had seen some other sketches he had created of whimsical mechanical insects made entirely of gears and levers and beautiful scrolly ironwork wings. So to celebrate our project I asked him to use the same kind of imaginative thinking to create a custom print for our crowdfunding campaign of a mechanical petunia.

I got a photo of two pages of his sketchbook where he started out just doing a study of petunia flowers and shapes from horticultural images and descriptions. Then he got to the point where he had a bunch of salty language in regards to my ridiculous request for a mechanical petunia. And then inspiration hit him.

Tom did a test print of his carved linoleum block Click to enlarge!

Tom did a test print of his carved linoleum block
Click to enlarge!

Tom just emailed a test print off the linoleum block he carved. This is an amazing piece of work, and at $125 is an absolute bargain to own a Tom Varani handmade print.

Support beautiful biology and pick up Tom’s print today. You can start a new conversation on biotechnology right your own home.