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Identifying disease carriers - a double-edged sword?


Development of ancillary technologies
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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What's happening is the ancillary technology's happening, like the… the amazing applications of GPS. You know, having done celestial navigation, what, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, and it's really, I mean, when I worked on the sailing ships, you know, when you're trying to take a reading in a pitching ship, you know, you're only a few feet from the waterline, and, you know, very often, you can't take a reading for several days because, you know, there's cloud and you can't see the sun, you can't see, you can't make any star shots. And then with a GPS, you get a device that costs a few hundred bucks, I mean, an ultra one for 5, 600. And you just carry it, you know, and you can get, it gives you accuracy, tells you what the limits are, and you know the military, they run the GPS system, it's their satellites. The… they downgraded the civilian signal for a while, but I… but I think they've stopped doing that. They may change it from time to time, but actually, even if they downgraded it, their methods of, kind of, integrating data, so you can circumvent the deterioration of the signal. But having said that, it's just a civilian hand-held instrument. Now, you know, when I go sailing, across, on a lake and there's a fog up, you know, I just take out the GPS — you can follow the course between navigational markers and all. Here we only have two navigational markers in the lake, but, or — I was doing some plant collecting recently, and, you know, a big thing when you collect a plant, you want to know exactly where the… well you take a GPS reading. It's hard to do in the forest, by the way, you have to get, you have to be able to see it.

So, and the GPS is just incredible. People, you know, farmers use it a lot now to plough. And, you know, or not plough, but to plant seeds, and they can, they detect to say how much fertilizer and insecticide you need; you know, to put in, you can plot out the whole field, program the tractor to… it's quite amazing. Well, I think the availability of that, and the development of other technologies. For example, we currently, you know, our internet, is pretty much the land-based, you know, I think it's very much a fiber optics and all that, but you can… you can predict a satellite-based internet, where you have, you know, a hundred mini-satellites, and, you know, you can launch pretty cheaply, on cheap launchers like, you know, they use submarine missiles — you know, missiles that are used on Polaris-type submarines, and the Russians have a lot, we have a lot of them. And there is a treaty that requires you, the United States submersibles to get rid of many of those. So the warheads have been removed, but then the question is, how do you get rid of the missiles? The easiest way is to shoot them. And… and if you put a... you know, you can get a very cheap launch. You can put a… a very good sized satellite, and those things can achieve orbital heights.

In any case, I'm rambling again, but it… what it has to do with the development of these technologies, that, in time, people will say, well, you know, if you've got all this stuff, we can do this pretty easily. Well, we're, you know, NASA's trying to develop, we're going to have more onboard sequencing capability on, one of these days, on the shuttle. And, or on landers. We're going to be able... they're going... because, well, I, we bought a Raman spectrograph to use for… for field use, and eventually use on Mars. Well, it weighed a kilo. You know, a Raman spectrograph used to be the size of that table! That's an incredible — and they promised us they'd make it smaller! You'd have a computer too, but you'd have that onboard, anyhow.

So… so I think what's going to happen, there's going to be an emergence of realization of what you can do, as the… as the technology improves. And that's why, I think, you know, a lot of this, much of what, you know, directing, particularly entrepreneurial action towards the development of alternative energy sources, that's going… that’s going to lead to all kinds of stuff that people have never thought of. And see, what often happens, is that you develop some engineering, or some technology, for one purpose, and after it's kind of around and available, and people know about it, some clever person will say, well, gee, I can use it for something else. For example, there's… there’s a big industry now that… that uses, what are known as, MEMS: microelectronic… microelectromagnetic [sic] systems. And those were developed by NASA, in the... I think the first one was, they had a contract with a... an engineering student, actually, at… at Stanford, and had developed a… a kind of inertial monitor for a rat heart valve. They wanted to do experimental measurements in space. Well, what in effect, happened, is you incorporated the memory and other electronic characteristics, the way you have on a computer chip, with a mechanical device. And you can stamp them out, you can produce them, etch them — the mechanical part, as well as the electronic part — the way you make chips. And they were chip size, this whole thing. Well, you know what those things are used for now? In your... the air-bags on the automobile, they have a deceleration detector that is a… that’s a MEMS device. And when you… when you have rapid deceleration at a… at a limit that's set, it sets off an explosive charge and the bag comes flowing out. That was a…

[Q] That’s a great example.

And there are… there are… it's a, must, by now, be a $10 billion a year application. Or the interpretation of things like scans, you know… PET scans and functional MRIs and so forth. A lot of that pattern recognition comes from work with Landsat, when you — Landsat, is the earth observing satellites, and that kind of interprets land shapes, land forms.

American research physician Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 along with D Carleton Gajdusek for their work on the origins and spread of infectious viral diseases that led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus. Blumberg’s work covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics and anthropology.

Listeners: Rebecca Blanchard

Dr Rebecca Blanchard is Director of Clinical Pharmacology at Merck & Co., Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. Her education includes a BSc in Pharmacy from Albany College of Pharmacy and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While at Utah, she studied in the laboratories of Dr Raymond Galinsky and Dr Michael Franklin with an emphasis on drug metabolism pathways. After receiving her PhD, Dr Blanchard completed postdoctoral studies with Dr Richard Weinshilboum at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on human pharmacogenetics. While at Mayo, she cloned the human sulfotransferase gene SULT1A1 and identified and functionally characterized common genetic polymorphisms in the SULT1A1 gene. From 1998 to 2004 Dr Blanchard was an Assistant Professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. In 2005 she joined the Clinical Pharmacology Department at Merck & Co., Inc. where her work today continues in the early and late development of several novel drugs. At Merck, she has contributed as Clinical Pharmacology Representative on CGRP, Renin, Losartan, Lurasidone and TRPV1 programs and serves as chair of the TRPV1 development team. Dr Blanchard is also Co-chair of the Neurology Pharmacogenomics Working Group at Merck. Nationally, she has served the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the Strategic Task Force and the Board of Directors. Dr Blanchard has also served on NIH study sections, and several Foundation Scientific Advisory Boards.

Tags: GPS, global positioning system, satellites, sailing, farmers, submarines, missiles, technology, MEMS device, microelectromechanical systems

Duration: 7 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009