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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Venter

Quest for immortality? Here we go again

“The genitals don’t determine your gender or even really your sexual identity”.

This time with Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, and now heading up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases 

Chris Anderson: I guess what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about your life, and using some pictures that you shared with me. And I think we should start right here with this one. Okay, now who is this?

0:25 Martine Rothblatt: This is me with our oldest son Eli. He was about age five. This is taken in Nigeria right after having taken the Washington, D.C. bar exam.

CA: But this doesn’t really look like a Martine.

MR: Right. That was myself as a male, the way I was brought up. Before I transitioned from male to female and Martin to Martine.

CA: You were brought up Martin Rothblatt.

MR: Correct.

CA: And about a year after this picture, you married a beautiful woman. Was this love at first sight? What happened there?

MR: It was love at the first sight. I saw Bina at a discotheque in Los Angeles, and we later began living together, but the moment I saw her, I saw just an aura of energy around her. I asked her to dance. She said she saw an aura of energy around me. I was a single male parent. She was a single female parent. We showed each other our kids’ pictures, and we’ve been happily married for a third of a century now. (Applause)

CA: And at the time, you were kind of this hotshot entrepreneur, working with satellites. I think you had two successful companies, and then you started addressing this problem of how could you use satellites to revolutionize radio. Tell us about that.

MR: I always loved space technology, and satellites, to me, are sort of like the canoes that our ancestors first pushed out into the water.

it was exciting for me to be part of the navigation of the oceans of the sky, and as I developed different types of satellite communication systems, the main thing I did was to launch bigger and more powerful satellites, the consequence of which was that the receiving antennas could be smaller and smaller, and after going through direct television broadcasting, I had the idea that if we could make a more powerful satellite, the receiving dish could be so small that it would just be a section of a parabolic dish, a flat little plate embedded into the roof of an automobile, and it would be possible to have nationwide satellite radio, and that’s Sirius XM today.

CA: who here has used Sirius?

2:47 (Applause)

2:50 MR: Thank you for your monthly subscriptions.

2:52 (Laughter)

CA: that succeeded despite all predictions at the time. It was a huge commercial success, but soon after this, in the early 1990s, there was this big transition in your life and you became Martine.

MR: Correct.

CA: So tell me, how did that happen?

MR: It happened in consultation with Bina and our four beautiful children, and I discussed with each of them that I felt my soul was always female, and as a woman, but I was afraid people would laugh at me if I expressed it, so I always kept it bottled up and just showed my male side.

And each of them had a different take on this. Bina said, “I love your soul, and whether the outside is Martin and Martine, it doesn’t matter to me, I love your soul.”

My son said, “If you become a woman, will you still be my father?” And I said, “Yes, I’ll always be your father, and I’m still his father today.”

My youngest daughter did an absolutely brilliant five-year-old thing. She told people, “I love my dad and she loves me.” So she had no problem with a gender blending whatsoever.

CA: And a couple years after this, you published this book: The Apartheid of Sex.” What was your thesis in this book?

MR: My thesis in this book is that there are seven billion people in the world, and actually, seven billion unique ways to express one’s gender. And while people may have the genitals of a male or a female, the genitals don’t determine your gender or even really your sexual identity.

That’s just a matter of anatomy and reproductive tracts, and people could choose whatever gender they want if they weren’t forced by society into categories of either male or female the way South Africa used to force people into categories of black or white.

We know from anthropological science that race is fiction, even though racism is very real, and we now know from cultural studies that separate male or female genders is a constructed fiction. The reality is a gender fluidity that crosses the entire continuum from male to female.

CA: You yourself don’t always feel 100% female.

MR: Correct. I would say in some ways I change my gender about as often as I change my hairstyle.

 CA: (Laughs) Okay, now, this is your gorgeous daughter, Genesis. And I guess she was about this age when something pretty terrible happened.

MR: Yes, she was finding herself unable to walk up the stairs in our house to her bedroom, and after several months of doctors, she was diagnosed to have a rare, almost invariably fatal disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension.

CA: how did you respond to that?

MR: we first tried to get her to the best doctors we could. We ended up at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The head of pediatric cardiology told us that he was going to refer her to get a lung transplant, but not to hold out any hope, because there are very few lungs available, especially for children.

He said that all people with this illness died, and if any of you have seen the film “Lorenzo’s Oil,” there’s a scene when the protagonist kind of rolls down the stairway crying and bemoaning the fate of his son, and that’s exactly how we felt about Genesis.

CA: But you didn’t accept that as the limit of what you could do. You started trying to research and see if you could find a cure somehow.

 MR: Correct. She was in the intensive care ward for weeks at a time, and Bina and I would tag team to stay at the hospital while the other watched the rest of the kids, and when I was in the hospital and she was sleeping, I went to the hospital library.

I read every article that I could find on pulmonary hypertension. I had not taken any biology, even in college, so I had to go from a biology textbook to a college-level textbook and then medical textbook and the journal articles, back and forth, and eventually I knew enough to think that it might be possible that somebody could find a cure.

So we started a nonprofit foundation. I wrote a description asking people to submit grants and we would pay for medical research. I became an expert on the condition — doctors said to me, Martine, we really appreciate all the funding you’ve provided us, but we are not going to be able to find a cure in time to save your daughter.

However, there is a medicine that was developed at the Burroughs Wellcome Company that could halt the progression of the disease, but Burroughs Wellcome has just been acquired by Glaxo Wellcome. They made a decision not to develop any medicines for rare and orphan diseases, and maybe you could use your expertise in satellite communications to develop this cure for pulmonary hypertension.

 CA: So how on earth did you get access to this drug?

MR: I went to Glaxo Wellcome and after three times being rejected and having the door slammed in my face because they weren’t going to out-license the drug to a satellite communications expert, they weren’t going to send the drug out to anybody at all, and they thought I didn’t have the expertise, finally I was able to persuade a small team of people to work with me and develop enough credibility.

I wore down their resistance, and they had no hope this drug would even work, by the way, and they tried to tell me, “You’re just wasting your time. We’re sorry about your daughter.” But finally, for 25,000 dollars and agreement to pay 10 percent of any revenues we might ever get, they agreed to give me worldwide rights to this drug.

CA: And so you put this drug on the market in a really brilliant way, by basically charging what it would take to make the economics work.

MR: this really wasn’t a drug that I ended up — after I wrote the check for 25,000, and I said, “Okay, where’s the medicine for Genesis?” they said, “Oh, Martine, there’s no medicine for Genesis. This is just something we tried in rats.”

And they gave me, like, a little plastic Ziploc bag of a small amount of powder. They said, “Don’t give it to any human,” and they gave me a piece of paper which said it was a patent, and from that, we had to figure out a way to make this medicine.

A hundred chemists in the U.S. at the top universities all swore that little patent could never be turned into a medicine. If it was turned into a medicine, it could never be delivered because it had a half-life of only 45 minutes.

CA: And yet, a year or two later, you were there with a medicine that worked for Genesis.

 MR: the astonishing thing is that this absolutely worthless piece of powder that had the sparkle of a promise of hope for Genesis is not only keeping Genesis and other people alive today, but produces almost a billion and a half dollars a year in revenue.

10:58 (Applause)

CA: So here you go. So you took this company public, right? And made an absolute fortune. And how much have you paid Glaxo, by the way, after that 25,000?

MR: every year we pay them 10 percent of 1.5 billion, 150 million dollars, last year 100 million dollars. It’s the best return on investment they ever received. (Laughter)

CA: And the best news of all, I guess, is this.

MR: Yes. Genesis is an absolutely brilliant young lady. She’s alive, healthy today at 30. You see me, Bina and Genesis there. The most amazing thing about Genesis is that while she could do anything with her life, and believe me, if you grew up your whole life with people in your face saying that you’ve got a fatal disease, I would probably run to Tahiti and just not want to run into anybody again.

But instead she chooses to work in United Therapeutics. She says she wants to do all she can to help other people with orphan diseases get medicines, and today, she’s our project leader for all telepresence activities, where she helps digitally unite the entire company to work together to find cures for pulmonary hypertension.

CA: But not everyone who has this disease has been so fortunate. There are still many people dying, and you are tackling that too. How?

MR: There’s some 3,000 people a year in the United States alone, perhaps 10 times that number worldwide, who continue to die of this illness because the medicines slow down the progression but they don’t halt it.

The only cure for pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, COPD, what Leonard Nimoy just died of, is a lung transplant,

 Sadly, there are only enough available lungs for 2,000 people in the U.S. a year to get a lung transplant, whereas nearly a half million people a year die of end-stage lung failure.

CA: how can you address that?

MR: I conceptualize the possibility that just like we keep cars and planes and buildings going forever with an unlimited supply of building parts and machine parts, why can’t we create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs to keep people living indefinitely, and especially people with lung disease.

So we’ve teamed up with the decoder of the human genome, Craig Venter, and the company he founded with Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize, to genetically modify the pig genome so that the pig’s organs will not be rejected by the human body and thereby to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs. We do this through our company, United Therapeutics.

CA: So you really believe that within a decade, that this shortage of transplantable lungs maybe be cured, through these guys?

MR: I’m as certain of that as I was of the success that we’ve had with direct television broadcasting, Sirius XM. It’s actually not rocket science. It’s straightforward engineering away one gene after another. We’re so lucky to be born in the time that sequencing genomes is a routine activity, and the brilliant folks at Synthetic Genomics are able to zero in on the pig genome, find exactly the genes that are problematic, and fix them.

CA:  It’s not just long-lasting bodies that are of interest to you now. It’s long-lasting minds. And I think this graph for you says something quite profound. What does this mean?

MR: What this graph means, and it comes from Ray Kurzweil, is that the rate of development in computer processing hardware, firmware and software, has been advancing along a curve such that by the 2020s, as we saw in earlier presentations today, there will be information technology that processes information and the world around us at the same rate as a human mind.

CA: And so that being so, you’re actually getting ready for this world by believing that we will soon be able to, what, actually take the contents of our brains and somehow preserve them forever? How do you describe that?

MR: what we’re working on is creating a situation where people can create a mind file, and a mind file is the collection of their mannerisms, personality, recollection, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values, everything that we’ve poured today into Google, into Amazon, into Facebook, and all of this information stored there will be able, in the next couple decades, once software is able to recapitulate consciousness, be able to revive the consciousness which is imminent in our mind file.

CA: Now you’re not just messing around with this. You’re serious. I mean, who is this?

MR: This is a robot version of my beloved spouse, Bina. And we call her Bina 48. She was programmed by Hanson Robotics out of Texas. There’s the centerfold from National Geographic magazine with one of her caregivers, and she roams the web and has hundreds of hours of Bina’s mannerisms, personalities. She’s kind of like a two-year-old kid, but she says things that blow people away, best expressed by perhaps a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Harmon who says her answers are often frustrating, but other times as compelling as those of any flesh person she’s interviewed.

CA: And is your thinking here, part of your hope here, is that this version of Bina can in a sense live on forever, or some future upgrade to this version can live on forever?

MR: Yes. Not just Bina, but everybody. You know, it costs us virtually nothing to store our mind files on Facebook, Instagram, what-have-you. Social media is I think one of the most extraordinary inventions of our time, and as apps become available that will allow us to out-Siri Siri, better and better, and develop consciousness operating systems, everybody in the world, billions of people, will be able to develop mind clones of themselves that will have their own life on the web.

CA: So the thing is, Martine, that in any normal conversation, this would sound stark-staring mad, but in the context of your life, what you’ve done, some of the things we’ve heard this week, the constructed realities that our minds give, I mean, you wouldn’t bet against it.

MR: Well, I think it’s really nothing coming from me. If anything, I’m perhaps a bit of a communicator of activities that are being undertaken by the greatest companies in China, Japan, India, the U.S., Europe.

There are tens of millions of people working on writing code that expresses more and more aspects of our human consciousness, and you don’t have to be a genius to see that all these threads are going to come together and ultimately create human consciousness, and it’s something we’ll value.

There are so many things to do in this life, and if we could have a simulacrum, a digital doppelgänger of ourselves that helps us process books, do shopping, be our best friends, I believe our mind clones, these digital versions of ourselves, will ultimately be our best friends, and for me personally and Bina personally, we love each other like crazy.

Each day, we are always saying, like, “Wow, I love you even more than 30 years ago. And so for us, the prospect of mind clones and regenerated bodies is that our love affair, Chris, can go on forever. And we never get bored of each other. I’m sure we never will.

19:16 CA: I think Bina’s here, right?

MR: She is, yeah.

CA: Would it be too much, I don’t know, do we have a handheld mic? Bina, could we invite you to the stage? I just have to ask you one question. Besides, we need to see you.

Come and join Martine here. I mean, look, when you got married, if someone had told you that, in a few years time, the man you were marrying would become a woman, and a few years after that, you would become a robot — (Laughter) — how has this gone? How has it been?

Bina Rothblatt: It’s been really an exciting journey, and I would have never thought that at the time, but we started making goals and setting those goals and accomplishing things, and before you knew it, we just keep going up and up and we’re still not stopping, so it’s great.

CA: Martine told me something really beautiful, just actually on Skype before this, which was that he wanted to live for hundreds of years as a mind file, but not if it wasn’t with you.

BR: That’s right, we want to do it together. We’re cryonicists as well, and we want to wake up together.

20:35 CA: So just so as you know, from my point of view, this isn’t only one of the most astonishing lives I have heard, it’s one of the most astonishing love stories I’ve ever heard. It’s just a delight to have you both here at TED. Thank you so much.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
The founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, Martine Rothblatt now heads up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases (including one drug…|By Martine Rothblatt

Don’t need to dictate your life? Your genes

Dean Ornish shares new research that shows how adopting healthy lifestyle habits can affect a person at a genetic level.  When you live healthier, eat better, exercise, and love more, your brain cells actually increase.

Dean Ornish. Physician, author

Dean Ornish is a clinical professor at UCSF and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. He’s a leading expert on fighting illness — particularly heart disease with dietary and lifestyle changes. Full bio

One way to change our genes is to make new ones, as Craig Venter has so elegantly shown.

Another is to change our lifestyles.

what we’re learning is how powerful and dynamic these changes can be, that you don’t have to wait very long to see the benefits. When you eat healthier, manage stress, exercise and love more, your brain actually gets more blood flow and more oxygen.

But more than that, your brain gets measurably bigger. Things that were thought impossible just a few years ago can actually be measured now. This was figured out by Robin Williams a few years before the rest of us.

0:44 Now, there’s some things that you can do to make your brain grow new brain cells. Some of my favorite things, like chocolate and tea, blueberries, alcohol in moderation, stress management and cannabinoids found in marijuana. I’m just the messenger.

 And other things that can make it worse, that can cause you to lose brain cells. The usual suspects, like saturated fat and sugar, nicotine, opiates, cocaine, too much alcohol and chronic stress.

Your skin gets more blood flow when you change your lifestyle, so you age less quickly. Your skin doesn’t wrinkle as much. Your heart gets more blood flow. We’ve shown that you can actually reverse heart disease. That these clogged arteries that you see on the upper left, after only a year become measurably less clogged.

And the cardiac PET scan shown on the lower left, the blue means no blood flow. A year later — orange and white is maximum blood flow. We’ve shown you may be able to stop and reverse the progression of early prostate cancer and, by extension, breast cancer, simply by making these changes.

We’ve found that tumor growth in vitro was inhibited 70% in the group that made these changes, whereas only nine percent in the comparison group.


Simple lifestyle changes that can actually make your brain bigger:|By Dean Ornish

These differences were highly significant. Even your sexual organs get more blood flow, so you increase sexual potency. One of the most effective anti-smoking ads was done by the Department of Health Services, showing that nicotine, which constricts your arteries, can cause a heart attack or a stroke, but it also causes impotence. Half of guys who smoke are impotent. How sexy is that?

we’re also about to publish a study — the first study showing you can change gene expression in men with prostate cancer. This is what’s called a heat map and the different colors — and along the side, on the right, are different genes. And we found that over 500 genes were favorably changed in effect, turning on the good genes, the disease-preventing genes, turning off the disease-promoting genes.

so these findings I think are really very powerful, giving many people new hope and new choices. And companies like Navigenics and DNA Direct and 23andMe, that are giving you your genetic profiles, are giving some people a sense of, “Gosh, well, what can I do about it?”

Well, our genes are not our fate, and if we make these changes — they’re a predisposition — but if we make bigger changes than we might have made otherwise, we can actually change how our genes are expressed.

“We know what we only fabricate” said the physicist Richard Feynman.

What is happening in Boston at MIT? About 1,700 students, divided in 112 teams from around the world, presented their synthetically engineered genetic “bricks”.  From a chassis or frame of a minimal bacteria possessing the only property of reproducing, the students grafted genes (costing about 40 cents) on the frame so that the new synthetic organisms deliver specific functions or properties such as producing a scent, detecting hazardous chemical compounds, emitting fluorescent lights…

A vast living kitchen where these living engineering samples are stored in refrigerated banks as spare parts for later use as Lego constructs. There are currently 5,000 of those “open source’ bio-bricks. Apparently, there are 10,000 artisanal genetic laboratory around the world and this yearly convention is the 6th.  Richard Kitney, director of the center of biological systems in Imperial London College, blurted out in excitedly: “Industries demand and are ready to invest heavily for the industrialization of biology (for example, speculative sources of energy production of bio-carburants, bio-degrading synthetic organisms, detecting harmful organs, decontamination of the environment, and aiding the military in biological warfare).

In 1912, the physician Stephane Leduc published “Synthetic biology”; he believed that forms, colors, textures, and movement of living organisms are the essence of the physico-chemical basis of life.  In 1978, Waclaw Szybalski wrote: “Till now, we were engaged in the descriptive phase of molecular biology.  The real challenge has started with synthetic biology.  We will discover newer elements to add to new modules of existing genomes that have controlling properties.  Thus, new synthetic genomes will acquire close-circuit behaviors and the gamut will be unlimited.”

Craig Venter is the catalyst in these conventions; he is the private pioneer in sequencing human genomes in the 90’s.  Venter fabricated the first synthetic bacteria; he assembled sequences of pig bacteria (an artificial chromosome)  and injected it in a goat bacteria cleared up of its genome; the new synthetic bacteria reproduced.

There are many methods to producing synthetic molecules with auto-organizational properties.  Jack Szostak (Harvard Medical School) stated: “We are very close to transforming molecules into living organisms.”

There are legislations on living organisms but not on synthetic biological products.  So far, constraints on new synthetic molecules are that they should not be able to interact with current natural organisms (genetically incompatible) and also nutritionally confined to rare substances (fluor) and unknown in nature (silica).

Once the Pandora box is wide open, there would be no fundamental theory to remedy to the  newer calamities and the new open hell that mankind created.  In the short-term, mankind will suffer famine because multinational industries in sugar, oil, and chemical products are regrouping to monopolizing special kinds of agricultural products.

Human Genome Project (HGP), a public consortium, started in 1993 with the goal of sequencing and decoding all genes in the ADN. Craig Venter also founded Celera Genomics to compete with HGP headed by Francis Collins; the two institutions managed to complete the job of decoding 21,000 gene combinations faster than expected within a decade due to new and cheaper technologies.  Over $3 billions were invested in this project.

Francis Collins had declared in 2001: “New therapeutic medicines, genetically tailor-made, will soon be introduced in the market to curing diabetes, hypertension, mental disorders, and many other ailments.” Francis Collins predicted that this dream will take effect no longer than 2010.

Well, we are in 2010 and not a single genetically tailor-made medicine was introduced.  Worse, we should not expect any breakthrough for a long time.  What are then the main difficulties and barriers?  It appears that technology is not synonymous with scientific knowledge.  For example, how a genome functions? After this first hurdle is crossed then, what are the effects of the horrendous number of interactions of these 21,000 genes?  There is this musoviscidose attributed to a single gene and yet, crossing from a theoretical knowledge to viable therapeutic treatments has proven to be a real headache.

The entire project didn’t start from any coherent set of hypotheses.  It was assumed that applications will automatically be generated from discovered data.  Many starting hypotheses proved to be wrong.  For example, researchers thought that genes conditioned the synthesis of proteins (essential for the proper functioning of cells); that genes were drowned in useless piles of ADN that failed to be eliminated in the course of evolution; that for each gene corresponded a unique protein that was coded by the intermediary of acid ribonucleic (ARN) serving as model for assembling of proteins.

All these hypotheses turned out to be incorrect.  It appears that genes are not linearly distributed unto the genome; that gene activities are influenced by various factors not explicitly coded in the genome; that the implications of a hereditary gene count little in the disease.  In short, there is this new big “black box” in the arsenal of sciences admitting ignorance.

After the discovery of the molecular structure of the ADN in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson, geneticists considered ADN to be the “Book of Life”; to be read as a manual of utilization. This paradigm stated “We are what our genes do to us.”

The scientist Jim Collins (not Francis) said:”We made the error of confounding data collection with the improvement of our knowledge.”  So far, the only general principle extracted from that labor of two decades is: “There is a link between the sequence of genes and the structure of a protein.”  Obviously, many more general principles have to reach consensus among scientists before anything useful can be done in therapeutic treatments.




May 2023

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