Nobel 2012: Physiology/Medicine

The first announcement of this year’s Nobel season was made this morning. The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has gone to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. This is a case where the work being awarded is very well known, even outside of scientific circles. Induced pluripotent stem cells, colloquially known as “adult stem cells,” have been discussed in many forums for their potential for revolutionary medical treatments.

What’s exciting about this work is that this discovery is key to enabling future therapeutic successes of stem cells. One such therapeutic application is one that I have long considered to be a Holy Grail problem: the growth of complex organs for transplants. Currently, there have been some early successes in this area, particularly in growing relatively simple organs such as bladders (first performed in 2006) and tracheae (first clinical use in 2008,) we are quite far away from organs such as livers, hearts, and kidneys. Both of these tissue engineering successes have used a type of stem cell that can be isolated from a patients own bone marrow, rather than the induced pluripotent cells that have won this year’s Nobel. It is expected that Yamanaka’s work will be key to developing more complex organs.
From the Nobel perspective, this work should have been on anyone’s short list of potential winners. Yamanaka shared last year’s Wolf Prize in Medicine with Rudolf Jaenisch of MIT for this discovery and Jaenisch’s subsequent use of the technique to treat a genetic disease in a mammal, thus providing a proof of concept for its therapeutic use. What is interesting is that the Nobel committee did not choose to include Jaenisch in today’s award.
Induced pluripotent stem cells have a long history. Gurdon’s work in replacing the nuclear material of a frog egg cell with the nuclear material from a tadpole was originally performed in 1962. While this success would not appear to deal with stem cells, the learning that a mature, differentiated cell could be reverted to an immature state was key to Yamanaka’s later work.  What Yamanaka did was to find the specific gene sequences necessary to revert a mature cell to a stem cell, and then transfecting adult cells in order to force the expression of those sequences.
Inveterate geeks will recall the scene in Star Trek 4 where Dr. McCoy gives a dialysis patient a pill that induces the growth of a new kidney. Induced pluripotent stem cells may bring us closer to those kinds of therapies are available outside of the movie theater.
Coming tomorrow: the Physics Nobel. We’ll see if my earlier predictions are accurate.

The 2012 MacArthur Fellows

The MacArthur Foundation has announced the names of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows! This year’s group is a pretty exciting bunch. I was interested to see the number of folks on the list working at the edge of art, science and culture, including Uta Barth and Maurice Lim Miller. The two fellows that interest me the most, mainly based on their area of expertise, are Maria Chudnovsky and Sarkis Mazmanian.

Dr. Chudnovsky is a professor of operations research and mathematics at Columbia University and studies graph theory. I’ve seen a lot of very interesting papers in the past few years where the specific tractability of analysis that you get with graphs has been used to elucidate phenomena from failovers on communications networks to growth dynamics in social media. Dr. Chudnovsky’s work is fundamental in connecting the specifics of graph theory to other branches of analysis.

Dr. Mazmanian is a professor of biology at CalTech. Regular readers of this blog and my Google+ stream will understand why I’m excited about this guy. His area of study is the interaction between host organisms and their beneficial microbial symbiotes. This area of research and the underlying premise that at least in humans, we can treat our bodies as an ecosystem rather than an organism promises to shape medical research outcomes for the next half-century.

I’m grateful to Ed Darrell for breaking the news when I was sound asleep!

The thrill of setting a stake in the ground

I ran across a great preprint while I was plundering the literature to write a presentation on bio-sourced materials last week. (I had posted an image on G+ from that presentation of some biologically-assembled nanofibers that I’d made, which I now include below just because of its beauty.) For my talk, what I learned from this preprint got rolled up into an almost throwaway comment about efficiency and yield, but that just doesn’t do justice to the thoughts it provoked. The preprint, entitled The Statistical Physics of Self-Replication, was by Jeremy England of MIT and was a joy to read.

The preprint contained a rough estimate of the lower bound of heat energy generated due to bacterial replication. What was thrilling about this paper to me is that it is exactly the kind of thought process and calculation that drew me to physics as a field of study. There is something vital and important, not only for the process of science but for sheer satisfaction, about putting a limit on something. This process of putting a stake into the ground and saying “I believe it stops here” is a challenge to the world at large. In that challenge, you are daring the world to either prove you wrong or carry it to the next level.

The paper might not be accurate. There were some assumptions made that may or may not be good ones. To some extent, that matters less than the fact that someone is making the calculation. The paper is also a reminder to me that when I do the same sort of calculations for pleasure, I ought to consider putting more work into them, to see what’s been done before and to see if I have anything unique to add.

It’s Nobel time again!

More exciting to me and certainly more impactful to humanity than the NCAA, Nobel season is a great time to reflect on major advances in science. I’m going to walk through my top contenders for the Chemistry and Physics Prizes. While I’m interested in all the Nobel prize winners and their work – whether it is in one of the sciences or in literature – the Physics and Chemistry Prizes hold a special appeal to me as a scientist working somewhere between those two fields.

The chemists in the blogosphere generally have a better game on about the odds on the potential future laureates than the physicists. I am particularly intrigued by Chembark and The Curious Wavefunction‘s  predictions. Given a recent shift away from the bio-related topics, this might be a year to bet that way. I thus find myself in agreement with Chembark’s 6-1 odds on Pierre Chambon for nuclear hormone signalling. Moerner’s work on single molecule spectroscopy is also another favorite of mine, for which he won the Wolf Prize in 2008 and the Langmuir Prize in 2009. In Physics, a Wolf Prize is a very strong indicator of soon-to-come Nobel. I’m not sure if this is true for Chemistry or not.

The dark horse in this race, in my opinion, is Allen Bard, the noted electrochemist, for the discovery of electron transfer in biological systems. This would tickle the bio-partisans and recognize the crowning contribution by someone for whom a lifetime achievement award would not be unreasonable. Chembark is quoting 19-1 odds on Bard. I think the chances are higher.

Usually, no one from the physics community handicaps the Physics Nobel race like the chemists do theirs. Poor showing, my fellow physicists!  This year, however, there is a heavyweight contender for the prize. With the exciting results from the Large Hadron Collider, I think that the Nobel Committee will have a hard time ignoring nominations for Peter Higgs (of the eponymous boson) and Francois Englert. The Atlantic has made a case for one of the trio of Hagen, Guralnik, and Kibble, who also published extensively (and a case can be made for independently) on what we now refer to as the Higgs boson. All 5 of these men (and one other, deceased) shared the Sakurai prize for work on the Higgs, so their contribution has been recognized. I will predict that if the Academy presents a medal based on this work, it will be to Higgs and Englert alone. The only thing I see that can be argued against a Higgs win here is the relative recency of the results. The committee, which includes two particle physicists, (Brink and Bergström) might reasonably choose to wait a year to ensure a more thorough analysis of the LHC data.

If they choose to delay on an award for Peter Higgs, the field is fairly wide open. There are several strong contenders in this case. The leading contenders, in my opinion, are Anton Zeilinger, John Clauser, and Alain Aspect for discoveries around quantum entanglement. With Zeilinger’s recent paper in building on his 2007 work on quantum teleportation, its clear that a path exists towards development of a practical quantum communications system. Zeilinger won the Wolf Prize in 2010 for this work.

Last year’s Wolf Prize winners in Physics are also strong contenders. Maximilian Haider, Harald Rose, and Knut Urban received the Wolf Prize in 2011 for their work on aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy. Bekenstein’s Wolf Prize winning work on the thermodynamics of black holes is certainly worthy of a prize, but I have a hard time seeing that this year.

In any case, October of 2012 is fast approaching. I can’t wait to find out who will get the call from Stockholm.

This is your brain on management

Here’s a great piece from the Neuroskeptic blog. They’re covering this new paper from PLoS ONE about fMRI imaging of manager’s brains.

The upshot of the paper is that managers tend to use less of their brain to make decisions, relying on established heuristics rather than fully engaging their cerebral cortex. This leads to fast, efficient decision making.

The implication I take away from this is that you get managerial failure in highly unusual (Black Swan, perhaps) situations that cannot be handled with existing heuristics and that managers are probably not inclined on the first blush to think outside the box.

Being in a managerial position myself, but one where I still am actively involved in the lab and in product development, I find that I appreciate the time I have where I’m not being expected to make rapid, effective decisions. It could be the case that letting your managers exercise these other areas of their cerebral cortex will produce better managers, ones who are able to make the rapid decisions that this paper indicates they can make, but who still have the facility to think more fully about the decision.

Nature Magazine’s job satisfaction survey

Nature has just published the results of their 2012 Salary and Satisfaction survey. It’s interesting reading, especially in light of the global economy. The primary takeaway is that in countries that have seen the most disruption, scientists are generally more worried about the stability of their funding sources and their jobs. This is unsurprising and mirrors the economic uncertainty felt in other professions. What is more surprising is that in some countries that have had relatively less economic disruption, such as China, India, and Japan, job satisfaction is lower than in countries like Spain, Italy, and the UK. A sidebar in the article speculates based on survey responses that factors such as the lack of good mentors or the lack of academic freedom contribute as much to job satisfaction for scientists as the economy.

Readers of Daniel Pink’s Drive will immediately be thinking about his trinity of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Certainly, this particular result of the survey seems to be indicative that failure to provide these things leads to dissatisfied workers. The countries with the lowest satisfaction correlated with the countries that scored lowest on ‘degree of independence.’


The Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems

Technology Review has a great article about complex, interconnected systems and the risks associated with them. I suspect that this is a teaser for the authors’ new book on the subject, which ought to make for interesting reading.

Making highly interconnected systems robust is not a trivial problem, but the early pioneers of information theory developed some pretty good ways to ensure fidelity over networks. It makes sense to me that this work would be the basis of increasing robustness in modern systems. All redundancy comes with a cost, however, and it will likely be insurance companies that will lead the way in placing a value on robustness.