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June, 2017

UConn Today Op-ed: UK’s Plan to Deny Terrorists ‘Safe Spaces’ Online Would Make us Less Safe

Published by UConn Today on 6/15/2017

Molly Land

In the wake of the recent attacks in Manchester and London, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called on social media companies to eliminate “safe spaces” online for extremist ideology. Despite losing the majority in the recent election, she is moving forward with plans to regulate online communications, including in cooperation with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.

May’s statement is just one of several initiatives aimed at “cleaning up” the internet. Others include Germany’s proposal to fine social media companies that fail to remove illegal content and the Australian attorney general’s call for laws requiring internet companies to decrypt communications upon request.

It is understandable to want to do something – anything – to help restore a lost sense of security. But as a human rights lawyer who has studied the intersection of human rights and technology for the last 10 years, I think May’s proposal and others like it are extremely concerning. They wrongly assume that eliminating online hate and extremism would reduce real-world violence. At the same time, these efforts would endanger rather than protect the public by curtailing civil liberties online for everyone. What’s more, they could involve handing key government functions over to private companies.

Weakening security for all

Some politicians have suggested tech companies should build “back doors” into encrypted communications, to allow police access. But determined attackers will simply turn to apps without back doors.

And back doors would inevitably reduce everyone’s online safety. Undermining encryption would leave us all more vulnerable to hacking, identity theft and fraud. As technology activist Cory Doctorow has explained: “There’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it.”

The harms of speech?

May’s statement also reflects a broader desire to prevent so-called “online radicalization,” in which individuals are believed to connect online with ideas that cause them to develop extreme views and then, ultimately, take action.

The concept is misleading. We are only beginning to understand more about the conditions under which speech in general, and particularly online speech, can incite violence. But the evidence we have indicates that online speech plays a limited role. People are radicalized through face-to-face encounters and relationships. Social media might be used to identify individuals open to persuasion, or to reinforce people’s preexisting beliefs. But viewing propaganda does not turn us into terrorists.

If it isn’t clear that removing extreme or hateful speech from the internet will help combat offline violence, why are so many governments around the world pushing for it? In large part, it is because we are more aware of this content than ever before. It’s on the same platforms that we use to exchange pictures of our children and our cats, which puts pressure on politicians and policy makers to look like they are “doing something” against terrorism.

Overbroad censorship

Even if online propaganda plays only a minimal role in inciting violence, there is an argument that governments should take every measure possible to keep us safe. Here again, it is important to consider the costs. Any effort to remove only “extremist” content is destined to affect a lot of protected speech as well. This is in part because what some view as extremism could be viewed by others as legitimate political dissent.

Further, the exact same material might mean different things in different contexts – footage used to provoke hate could also be used to discuss the effects of those hateful messages. This is also why we are not likely to have a technological solution to this problem any time soon. Although work is underway to try to develop algorithms that will help social media companies identify dangerous speech, these efforts are in early stages, and it is not clear that a filter could make these distinctions.

The risks of private censorship

Trying to eliminate extremist content online may also involve broad delegation of public authority to private companies. If companies face legal consequences for failing to remove offending content, they’re likely to err on the side of censorship. That’s counter to the public interest of limited censorship of free speech.

Further, giving private companies the power to regulate public discourse reduces our ability to hold censors accountable for their decisions – or even to know that these choices are being made and why. Protecting national security is a state responsibility – not a task for private companies.

If governments want to order companies to take down content, that’s a public policy decision. But May’s idea of delegating this work to Facebook or Google means shifting responsibility for the regulation of speech to entities that are not accountable to the people they are attempting to protect. This is a risk to the rule of law that should worry us all.

The way forward

There is, of course, online material that causes real-world problems. Workers tasked with reviewing flagged content risk harm to their mental health from viewing violent, obscene and otherwise disturbing content every day. And hate crimes online can have extraordinary impacts on people’s real-world lives. We need to develop better responses to these threats, but we must do so thoughtfully and carefully, to preserve freedom of expression and other human rights.

One thing is certain – a new international treaty is not the answer. In her June 4 statement, May also called on countries to create a new treaty on countering the spread of extremism online. That is simply an invitation to censor online speech, even more than some nations already do. Nations need no additional incentives, nor international support, for cracking down on dissidents.

Human rights treaties – such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – already provide a strong foundation for balancing freedom of expression, privacy and the regulation of harmful content online. These treaties acknowledge legitimate state interests in protecting individuals from harmful speech, as long as those efforts are lawful and proportional.

Rather than focusing on the straw man of “online radicalization,” we need an honest discussion about the harms of online speech, the limits of state censorship and the role of private companies. Simply shifting the responsibility to internet companies to figure this out would be the worst of all possible worlds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

UConn TIP Company Uses Microbiome For Innovative Skin Treatments

Published by Chemical & Engineering News on 5/8/2017

Marc S . Reisch

“Love your bacteria.” That’s the tagline for Yun Probiotherapy’s line of skin cosmetics directed at those who have acne or athlete’s foot or who just want to keep their skin looking healthy. Yun’s product line, now entering the personal care market, incorporates “friendly” bacteria to help correct skin microbe imbalances.

Scientists have known for some time that the skin, like the human gut, is teeming with bacteria, fungi, yeast, and viruses, all actors in what is known as the microbiome. Some are beneficial, others are not, and some considered “good” may become harmful under the right conditions.

There’s also long-standing evidence of a connection between a healthy gut and the consumption of Lactobacillus-containing supplements and foods such as yogurt. Research firm Global Market Insights estimates that the food market for the beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics exceeded $36 billion in 2015.

However, little was known about the diversity of the “bugs” among us or their impact on human health until the Human Microbiome Project, a five-year, $157 million endeavor launched in 2008 and overseen by the National Institutes of Health. The effort teased out tantalizing details on the astounding variety of microbial communities living in our guts and on our bodies.

Now, cosmetic formulators are taking tentative first steps toward applying some of the lessons learned from the project to develop their own microbiome franchises. They are designing health-enhancing skin care products that contain live bacteria, bacteria extracts, or ingredients meant to enhance skin microbe activity.

Skeptics say not enough evidence exists to verify the benefits of creams and butters meant to farm the bugs living on human skin. They especially question the benefit of placing live microorganisms on the body without thorough testing, and they wonder how formulations containing live actors can even exist when regulations generally forbid the sale of “contaminated” products.

Personal care product formulators like Yun aren’t put off by such questions about the skin microbiome. They see many opportunities emerging from research that suggests a strong connection between a balanced microbiome and healthy skin.

Others targeting consumers with skin-microbiome-enhancing formulas include start-up firms such as AOBiome, maker of skin care products containing the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria Nitrosomonas eutropha, and Gallinée, a supplier of products containing probiotics as well as so-called prebiotics that feed skin microorganisms.

And the small innovators are not alone. Some of the big personal care firms are staking out a claim to the microbiome. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, is helping the biotech firm S-Biomedic develop a bacterial treatment for both therapeutic and cosmetic applications. The firm is now a resident of J&J’s JLINX start-up incubator in Beerse, Belgium.

Procter & Gamble has taken an interest in the skin microbiome, applying for a patent on a prebiotic composition to “improve the health of the skin microbiome.” L’Oréal, meanwhile, has patented the bacteria-derived ingredient vitreoscilla ferment, intended to “balance” the microbiome of dry skin. The firm has incorporated it into cosmetics sold under its La Roche-Posay label.

Forward-looking personal care ingredient makers are also looking into what could be the next big thing in cosmetics. For instance, prominent ingredient suppliers such as BASF and Givaudan have introduced products to enhance the microbiome and, along with it, skin health. Smaller firms such as Azitra, Greenaltech, and Vantage Specialty Ingredients are also looking to provide microbiome-focused ingredients.

Microbiome skeptics

Not surprisingly, the concept of microbiome-enhancing cosmetics has its doubters. Wilfried Petersen, managing director of the German preservatives specialist Dr. Straetmans, wonders if the developing fascination with the skin microbiome will amount to more than a hill of beans. “The story of the microbiome sounds nice, but the proof of benefit is lacking,” he says.

European Union regulations, Petersen points out, don’t allow for the intentional addition of bacteria to cosmetics. In addition, he asks, if beneficial bacteria are added, how do you preserve the formula and how can you be sure it won’t become unstable and spoil?

Dermatologist Patricia K. Farris points out that skin microbiome imbalances, such as the overgrowth of Propionibacterium acnes, are prevalent in many skin diseases. Correcting those conditions, perhaps with lactic acid or other bacterial derivatives, can provide relief for people with those conditions.

“But can we make people look 20 years younger by putting probiotics on their face? I’m not sure we’re there yet,” says Farris, who is on the board of the American Academy of Dermatology. More study is needed to determine if pre- and probiotics are worthy of the hype they are getting, she says.

Studies carried out as part of the Human Microbiome Project suggest that a person isn’t so much an individual as a complex organism composed of both human and microbial cells. Trillions of microorganisms inhabit the body, outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. In all, those microorganisms make up 1 to 3% of the body’s mass, or anywhere from 1 to 3 kg on the body of a 100-kg adult.

But the challenge is to translate that general knowledge into health and disease conditions and then to specific treatments. Mapping out and sequencing the genetic identity of microbes at various locations on the skin is a complex undertaking, notes Nava Dayan, a skin research consultant to pharmaceutical and personal care firms. Even with the work undertaken to date, “we don’t fully understand the baseline of what a healthy skin microbiome is because it varies from person to person and even differs depending on a person’s age and environment,” she says.

Without a full understanding of what the baseline is, developing a personal care product to influence the skin microbiome “is like shooting a moving target,” Dayan says. Even if scientists learn how the skin microbiome changes and shifts over time, they are still missing a lot of information about how microbes influence human cells.

Testing personal care formulations for their effects on the skin poses another problem, Dayan says. Cultured human cell models now used in labs “are inherently sterile.” It will be some time before scientists can develop a human cell model that also incorporates skin microbes.

Probiotic possibilities

Still, cosmetic firms such as Yun, the company that exhorts customers to love their bacteria, see value in harnessing what is now known about the microbiome. The firm has worked with scientists at the University of Antwerp to develop its product line, which incorporates live Lactobacillus. It promises to make its research public soon.

At a microbiome workshop last month at the In-Cosmetics personal care ingredients show in London, Yun cofounder Tom Verlinden said the company avoids contaminating other ingredients in its formula by housing the dormant Lactobacillus inside a protective microcapsule.

When the cream is rubbed on the skin, the capsule breaks open and the bacteria are activated, according to Verlinden, who is trained as a pharmacist. The firm uses a “natural” pH-activated preservative system that turns off when it hits the skin’s pH, he added.

Asked if he thinks the market is ready for skin care products that contain bacteria, Verlinden said he would not have thought so two years ago on the basis of surveys his firm conducted. “Now, given the fear of chemicals,” he said, consumers are ready for a more “natural” product.

Some consumers have already given Yun a vote of confidence. The firm raised more than $20,000 on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website, earlier this year.

Regulators are ready for live probiotics too, Verlinden claimed. The regulators Yun has spoken with gave the firm the go-ahead after they saw data indicating its products “can’t hurt,” he says.

Also adding live bacteria to its formulas is Cambridge, Mass.-based AOBiome, maker of a product called Mother Dirt. Speaking at the London workshop, Elsa Jungman, a product manager for the firm, explained that company founder David Whitlock uncovered the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria after being challenged to explain why horses roll in the dirt.

Whitlock, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained chemical engineer, took a look at the dirt and eventually isolated Nitrosomonas. While studying the bacteria, he found they consume the ammonia in sweat and produce nitric oxide and anti-infective compounds that have a role in regulating inflammation, Jungman explained. Whitlock concluded that horses roll in the dirt for its skin-soothing benefits.

Nitrosomonas were once common on human skin, AOBiome theorizes, but with the widespread use of surfactants to clean skin, they have all but disappeared. Reestablishing them on the body promotes skin health and reduces the occurrence of skin pathologies such as acne, Jungman claimed.

Mother Dirt drew attention the year before it was launched when a 2014 New York Times Magazine article detailed reporter Julia Scott’s experience testing a spray mist containing AOBiome’s active ingredient. After a month of using the mist instead of showering, Scott said, she didn’t smell and her skin changed for the better.

The mist and other preparations containing the bacteria contain no preservatives and must be refrigerated, Jungman said. “Our customers tend to be afraid of chemicals,” she said, and they tend to have very sensitive and problematic skin. To date, she noted, “we have had no adverse event reports involving our product.”

The biotech firm Azitra, a 2014 spin-off from Yale University, has developed a skin-soothing recombinant microbe based on Staphylococcus epidermidis, a normal part of the skin microbiome.

Azitra’s bacteria express filaggrin, a structural protein often missing or underexpressed in people who have skin problems such as eczema, explains Travis Whitfill, a Yale School of Medicine research scientist and Azitra’s chief science officer. The protein binds to keratin fibers in the skin’s epithelial cells, regulating skin lipids and helping the skin retain moisture, he says.

Whitfill says filaggrin production is designed to be short-lived. After a day or two, the bacteria “kick out” the designer DNA Azitra inserted as they reproduce on the skin. The bacteria are still there, but the altered DNA decays in the environment, he says.

Azitra is struggling with how to keep the bacteria viable until the consumer uses a product containing them. Whitfill says the firm is considering drying the bacteria so they go dormant and delivering them in a waterless emollient to the consumer. Moisture on the skin would revive them.

So far, Azitra has raised nearly $4 million from the venture capital firm Bios Partners, in which Whitfill is also a partner. Azitra aims to qualify a consumer product for sale by 2019, hopefully with another firm, Whitfill says. Longer term, it wants to develop its recombinant bacteria to treat skin conditions such as eczema and rare genetic skin diseases, he says.

Gallinée distributes a cream in France and the U.K. that contains what the company describes as “deactivated bacteria from the Lactobacillus family” along with prebiotic fibers and sugars to support the growth of good bacteria, and lactic acid to optimize skin pH. The combination of ingredients is intended to repair the skin barrier and support the microbiome.

The firm’s founder, Marie Drago, who like Verlinden is a pharmacist, also spoke at the London conference. Changing her diet to include prebiotic and probiotic ingredients alleviated the gluten intolerance she had for years, she claimed. That led her to reason that “if such a treatment worked inside, it could work outside too.”

“We’re cleaner than we used to be, and that’s why you see so much disease,” Drago said.

Active ingredient approaches

Some personal care ingredient suppliers are leery of diving into materials that contain bacteria, either alive or “deactivated.” But they are interested in developing active ingredients that work to benefit the skin microbiome.

“We considered developing live bacteria strains with skin benefits,” says Boris Vogelgesang, a technical manager at BASF, the world’s largest chemical company. But the firm was concerned about regulations on microbial “contamination” of personal care products and the complications inherent in preserving creams and lotions while keeping good bacteria viable.

“Maybe we can learn from food regulations,” which do allow active microorganisms in products such as yogurt and cheese, Vogelgesang suggests. “Preservative regulations need to evolve to distinguish good from harmful bacteria.” That may happen with time, but for now “it’s a brand new topic,” he says, and BASF is taking a conservative approach.

That approach includes establishing a research group that is exploring how microbes are involved in a healthy skin barrier and how active ingredients affect them. “We want to better understand the role of each microorganism in skin beauty and build new skin models to study effects of active ingredients,” says David Herault, BASF’s head of global R&D for bioactives.

Together with the International Center for Infectiology Research in Lyon, France, BASF has been developing skin models embedded with bacteria. The firm hopes the models will help it launch active ingredients to treat aging skin, skin with pigment disorders, and skin exposed to pollution as well as to work with different skin types.

BASF’s work in skin modeling also involves Poietis, a French firm with which it is developing a three-dimensional printed model of human skin as an alternative to animal testing of cosmetics, which is banned in Europe. Vogelgesang says 3-D printing can layer cells and precisely seed growth factors and cell types.

The technique might be adapted to reproduce the cells and bacteria found in wrinkles, Vogelgesang suggests. Such a model could lead to microbiome-inspired techniques to reduce skin wrinkling. “There is a lot to discover about the skin microbiome,” he says.

As BASF sees it, exploring the microbiome for personal care opens up a brave new world. “For years we’ve tried to eliminate problematic bacteria by using antibiotics. But killing the bad bacteria could also damage beneficial bacteria,” Vogelgesang says. “We need an approach that recognizes the community of flora on the skin and that preserves beneficial bacteria.”

For now the firm is using in vivo methods to look at the effect of active ingredients on skin microbes. In doing so it has come up with an ingredient, called Relipidium, that rebalances the skin microbiome. Vogelgesang says Relipidium works by encouraging growth of the beneficial bacterial S. epidermidis and discouraging growth of Staphylococcus aureus, which is associated with dermatitis and dry skin.

Launched late last year, Relipidium is made by feeding a yeast extract to Lactobacillus plantarum, a type of lactic acid bacteria. After filtering out any microbes, what are left behind are beneficial proteins, amino acids, and short-chain fatty acids.

BASF expects to develop products that complement Relipidium in the future, Vogelgesang says, adding that the firm’s likely next microbiome-inspired targets are ingredients that address oily and sensitive skin.

The fragrance ingredient specialist Givaudan is also developing actives to enhance the skin microbiome. Its 2015 acquisition of the active ingredients maker Induchem brought with it an R&D center in Toulouse, France, with expertise in genetic analysis and the microbiome, explains Fabrice Lefèvre, marketing and innovation director.

Givaudan initially developed Revivyl, one of its newest ingredients, to “revive” the skin by stimulating cellular differentiation and exfoliation of older skin cells. But then “we also asked how this ingredient would affect the microbiome,” Lefèvre says.

Isolated about 10 years ago, Revivyl is an extract from Orobanche rapum, a chlorophyll-free parasitic plant that grows in Europe. Besides its skin-reviving characteristic, Revivyl “protects skin by balancing the skin microbiota” and prevents microbial imbalances. According to the firm’s literature, Revivyl also inhibits the Finegoldia genus of opportunistic skin pathogens.

In a concept it calls [Yu] for “you are unique,” Givaudan is promoting the incorporation of Revivyl into fragrances. Such a use would combine a sensory experience with microbiome protection to make users “feel and look beautiful,” Lefèvre says.

Beyond ingredients that maintain the skin microbiome, Lefèvre says, Givaudan is developing ingredients that the microbiome turns on. One is Brightenyl, a skin-lightening agent that is activated by the skin’s resident bacteria.

Developed two years ago, Brightenyl contains an α-glucoside derivative of trihydroxybenzoic acid that Givaudan calls THBG. When applied to the skin, THBG is converted by certain microbes into trihydroxybenzoic acid, a molecule that evens out and lightens the skin.

Practical prebiotics

Other ingredient makers aren’t yet ready to go as far as introducing microbes to the skin or even developing ingredients that depend on microbiome activity. Many are betting that getting the skin microbiome into better balance with prebiotics is the first course of action.

“We stay strictly with prebiotics and address the skin holistically,” says Michael Anthonavage, technical director of Vantage Specialty Ingredients.

The firm’s PreBio Defense is a blend of polysaccharides that “acts as a fertilizer bed” for good skin bacteria, Anthonavage says. Prebiotics in the formula include inulin and β-glucan, which are packed into cellulose microcapsules to make it easy for formulators to blend into their skin care products, he says.

Greenaltech, a Barcelona-based biotech firm, is offering Algaktiv BioSKN, a prebiotic derived from microalgae. Joan Tarraga, who heads business development for the firm, describes BioSKN as a carbohydrate derived from microalgae cell membranes.

The skin is subject to a variety of assaults, including “sun radiation, urban pollution, weather, and chemicals in the environment,” Tarraga argues. As a result, the epidermis thins “and our microbiome is altered, leading to inflammation,” he says. Incorporated into a cosmetic formulation, BioSKN helps beneficial bacteria grow and reduces the proliferation of harmful bacteria that can cause inflammation, he claims.

Skin research consultant Dayan says she expects that scientists and cosmetic ingredient formulators will over time look more deeply into the “cross talk between the microbiome and human cells.” Understanding the complex community of microbes resident on the skin—and comprehending how those microbes can vary from individual to individual—can lead to the next steps in skin product development, she suggests.

It’s uncharted territory for the personal care business. For years people have been taught to fear bacteria and knew of only the infections and illnesses they could cause. Time will tell whether the public is now ready to accept skin care products full of bacteria and turn microbiome-inspired cosmetics into the next big thing.

UConn Study: E-cigarettes ‘Potentially as Harmful as Tobacco Cigarettes’

Published by UConn Today on 6/12/2017

Colin Poitras

A study by chemists at the University of Connecticut offers new evidence that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are potentially as harmful as tobacco cigarettes.

Using a new low-cost, 3-D printed testing device, UConn researchers found that e-cigarettes loaded with a nicotine-based liquid are potentially as harmful as unfiltered cigarettes when it comes to causing DNA damage.

The researchers also found that vapor from non-nicotine e-cigarettes caused as much DNA damage as filtered cigarettes, possibly due to the many chemical additives present in e-cigarette vapors. Cellular mutations caused by DNA damage can lead to cancer.

The findings appear in the journal ACS Sensors.

How much DNA damage e-cigarettes cause depends on the amount of vapor the user inhales, the other additives present, whether nicotine or non-nicotine liquid is used, and other factors, says Karteek Kadimisetty, a postdoctoral researcher in UConn’s chemistry department and the study’s lead author.

But one finding was clear.

“From the results of our study, we can conclude that e-cigarettes have as much potential to cause DNA damage as unfiltered regular cigarettes,” Kadimisetty says.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up liquid and turn it into an aerosol vapor that can be inhaled. Using e-cigarettes is also called ‘vaping.’ The contents of e-cigarettes, called e-liquid or e-juice, are usually made up of propylene glycol, glycerine, nicotine, and flavorings such as menthol, cherry, vanilla, or mint. Non-nicotine e-cigarettes are also available.

Frequently viewed as a less toxic alternative for people looking to break their habit of smoking tobacco cigarettes, modern e-cigarettes have steadily risen in popularity since they first appeared on the commercial market in 2004. How much e-cigarettes contribute to serious health problems and whether they serve as a gateway for future tobacco smokers remains the subject of much debate. Growing concerns about the potential health impact of electronic cigarettes however, prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to tighten its regulation of e-cigarettes in 2016.

UConn’s scientists decided to look into whether the chemicals in e-cigarettes could cause damage to human DNA while testing a new electro-optical screening device they developed in their lab. The small 3-D printed device is believed to be the first of its kind capable of quickly detecting DNA damage, or genotoxicity, in environmental samples in the field, the researchers say.

The device uses micropumps to push liquid samples across multiple ‘microwells’ embedded in a small carbon chip. The wells are pre-loaded with reactive human metabolic enzymes and DNA. As the samples drop into the wells, new metabolites that have the potential to cause DNA damage are formed. Reactions between the metabolites and the DNA generate light that is captured by a camera. Within five minutes, users can see how much relative DNA damage a sample produces by the intensity of the light detected in each well. The device is unique in that it converts chemicals into their metabolites during testing, which replicates what happens in the human body, Kadimisetty says.

Bioassays currently used to determine the genotoxicity of environmental samples may be more comprehensive, but they are also time-consuming and costly. The lab equipment alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The array developed at UConn provides an important initial screening tool for genotoxicity in just minutes. The chip central to the device is disposable and costs only a dollar to make, thanks to recent advances in 3-D printing.

“What we developed is very cheap to make, efficient, and can be used by almost anyone,” says UConn chemistry professor James Rusling, the senior researcher on the study.

Affordable and efficient “labs on a chip” is a specialty of Rusling’s lab, which has previously created miniature arrays that can detect antibodies to food allergens and cancer biomarker proteins. Rusling says similar arrays could potentially be used for quick genotoxic screening during drug development, for monitoring or testing fresh water supplies, and for the early detection of aggressive forms of cancer.

In the current study, the researchers extracted vapor samples from e-cigarettes and smoke from tobacco cigarettes using an artificial inhalation technique. Cigarettes were connected to a tube that contained a cotton plug. The researchers then used a syringe at the other end of the tube to replicate inhalation. Samples came from the chemicals captured in the cotton.

The team set their test so that 20 puffs of an e-cigarette was roughly equivalent to smoking one tobacco cigarette, a ratio supported by other research. The team gathered samples at 20, 60, and 100 puffs. The potential DNA damage from e-cigarettes increased with the number of puffs, Kadimisetty says.

“Some people use e-cigarettes heavily because they think there is no harm,” he says. “We wanted to see exactly what might be happening to DNA, and we had the resources in our lab to do that.”

There are potentially hundreds of chemicals in e-cigarettes that could be contributing to DNA damage, Kadimisetty says. Rather than test for all of them, the UConn team targeted three known carcinogenic chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes. They then loaded their device’s microwells with specific enzymes that would convert those chemicals into metabolites. If these chemicals were in the sample, the test gave them a reading for genotoxicity. If the chemicals were not present, there would be no reaction.

The results caught him by surprise.

“I never expected the DNA damage from e-cigarettes to be equal to tobacco cigarettes,” says Kadimisetty. “I was shocked the first time I saw the result, so I ran the controls again. I even diluted the samples. But the trend was still there – something in the e-cigarettes was definitely causing damage to the DNA.”

Kadimisetty says he got interested in early cancer diagnosis and point-of-care sensors for genotoxicity after losing an aunt to cancer several years ago. His aunt, he said, might have lived longer had her cancer been detected sooner.

Joining Kadimisetty and Rusling on the study was former UConn Ph.D. student Spundana Malla, now a scientist at Alliance Pharma in Pennsylvania. The study was supported by funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

UConn Professor on Why Amazon Shouldn’t Sell Prescription Drugs

Published by CNBC on 6/9/2017

C. Michael White

Amazon hit a milestone last month after the price of one share hit US $1,000 for the first time, giving it a total value of close to $500 billion. That makes it the fourth-biggest company in the U.S. in terms of market capitalization and twice the size of brick-and-mortar rival Walmart.

The online retailer’s incredible growth has come from expanding into more and more areas of the economy, providing its customers with speedy delivery of everything from socks and books to lawn chairs and computers. One category it has yet to enter, however, is prescription drugs.

Amazon wants to change that and dispense drugs alongside its hundreds of millions of other wares. Would this be a good thing for consumers and the health care system?

The biggest online retailer’s entry into this market may lead to efficiency gains, but the cost would be dear in terms of further severing the link between patients and actual pharmacists. Research, including my own, shows that patients need more face-to-face time with pharmacists, not less.

Brief history of pharmacies

Pharmacies (or apothecaries, as they were once known) have existed since antiquity. The first retail pharmacy began in Philadelphia in 1729. Back then, pharmacists not only dispensed medications to patients (without a prescription) but diagnosed diseases and handcrafted drugs. In 1951, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which prohibited pharmacists from dispensing FDA-approved drugs without a valid prescription.

Mail-order pharmacies harnessing the raw efficiency of mass-filling prescriptions began to boom in the 1980s. In 2013, about 39 percent of customers said they refilled their prescription by mail order, up from an estimated 6 percent in 1990.

Clearly it costs less per unit of labor for prescriptions to be filled in a centralized facility with industrial pill counting technology and with auto-refills of medication than when prescriptions are filled manually in the store by a local pharmacist triggered by a patient calling the pharmacy.

Consumers say they like the convenience of mail-order pharmacies, which is likely one of the reasons Amazon is getting serious about entering the $450 billion market for prescription drugs.

Amazon might be able to enhance the user experience, as well as make the process even more efficient, but there’s a cost.

Drugs aren’t socks

What is missing from the discussion is that prescription drugs are not socks or refrigerators. When consumers take drugs, they become patients, not just customers.

While prescription drugs hold the promise of preventing disease and treating symptoms, they can maim or even kill if not used correctly.

In 1993, for example, medication-related errors led to about 7,400 deaths, more than double the number of fatalities in 1983, according to a review of death certifications. Unfortunately, they’re the latest data available, but most likely the number is higher today.

A key reason for these errors seems to be a lack of communication. A 2003 report noted that better communication among physicians, pharmacists and nurses could prevent 86 percent of the most serious medication errors, which suggests shifting more drug dispensation to a centralized facility from local pharmacies would worsen the problem.

Too many people aren’t taking their meds

Another thing that makes prescription drugs very different than Amazon’s typical offerings is that in many cases it’s essential that patients actually take their meds as prescribed. That’s not happening.

Taking drugs in the right dosage for the right amount of time is critical to effectively cure a disease, prevent the formation of antimicrobial resistance and keep a malady from progressing.

Yet on average, only about 50 percent of American patients typically take their medicines as prescribed, costing hundreds of billions of dollars in adverse outcomes and unnecessary hospitalizations each year.

Furthermore, in my own research involving patients with cardiovascular diseases, I have found that people are simply not receiving the medications they need – and when they are, they aren’t following through on the required dosage, leading to worse outcomes. I’ve found that greater interaction between patients and pharmacists can help solve this problem.

Other studies have shown that more active face-to-face engagement with a pharmacist improves a patient’s level of adherence to a prescription, which can lead to better outcomes. A study involving Walgreens pharmacists, for example, suggested direct drug counseling reduced health care costs by $266 on average, mostly due to fewer hospitalizations.

The environmental costs

Finally, another key aspect of prescription drugs is that their waste is a big and growing problem.

Unlike the clothes or appliances you order, medications can’t simply be returned to the merchant, restocked and resold to another customer. There’s no way of ensuring they weren’t adulterated or improperly stored, and the risks are too great. That means every pill that goes unused must be disposed of, which is a huge waste of money but also is a major source of pollution.

In a 2015 assessment of medications turned in for disposal, more than half of the prescriptions purchased from mail-order pharmacies still contained 80 percent of more of the original pills. Even more troubling, 39 percent had every single pill originally dispensed. That compares with much-lower rates of 37 percent and 17 percent for community pharmacies.

Many of the unused drugs, however, aren’t properly disposed of and instead end up in a landfill or flushed down a toilet.

A nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 and 2000 found low levels of pharmaceuticals – including antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids – in 80 percent of the rivers and streams sampled, contaminating 40 million Americans’ drinking water.

Studies have shown that aquatic animals are adversely affected by these hormones, with some male fish developing female sex organs, and there are concerns that long-term exposure to a tainted water supply can lead to more superbugs.

Small gains for many pains

Amazon is a revolutionary company that has reshaped how we shop and has helped drastically increase the efficiency of shipping small packages. This could even allow it to reduce some of the negative side effects, noted above, of remote pharmacies, such as by making it more cost-effective to ship small quantities of pills to reduce waste.

But to my mind, any modest gains in efficiencies or cost savings are paid for dearly by the negative outcomes that result from medication-related errors and patients not following through on their prescriptions, while the waste of unused drugs will continue. And while this problem has been with us for a while, Amazon, due to its size and ability to quickly dominate markets, would make the situation a lot worse.

Delivering a product more efficiently cannot be the only metric of success. With prescription drugs, saving lives must be considered as well.

UConn Study: MicroRNAs Identify Melanoma Molecular Signature

Published by MedPage Today on 6/8/2017

Mark L Fuerst

Since a biopsy may not always reveal which melanomas are the most dangerous, the discovery of a molecular signal that can distinguish which melanomas need more aggressive treatment could lead to the development of a new type of melanoma therapy. It may also explain the reason exposure to ultraviolet light increases the odds of skin cancer.

The big question in skin cancer is why some melanomas spread aggressively, and others don’t. Two patients with melanomas of the same depth can have very different outcomes. “Depth is not necessarily a reliable marker,” Soheil Dadras, MD, PhD of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, said in an interview. “A molecular approach would be better to judge how to treat melanoma.”

He and his colleagues set out to define a molecular signature of aggressive melanoma. They began measuring microribonucleic acid (miRNA) levels in melanomas — RNA acts as a messenger that translates the instructions in a cell’s DNA into actual proteins. “MiRNAs are potent gene regulators that control which messenger RNA becomes active,” Dadras said.

The type of miRNAs can significantly change the kinds of proteins available to a cell, and in turn, can change a cell’s behavior. For example, a cell might have genes that prevent it from turning cancerous, but if miRNAs suppress the anti-cancer proteins those genes make, the cell can go rogue anyway, he explained.

“We used next-generation sequencing to focus on not just what the genome shows, but also on isolated small RNAs from specimens. We were able to find a handful of miRNAs that define thick from thin melanomas.”

The researchers sampled miRNAs from 28 small RNAs isolated from an annotated series of invasive melanomas (average invasive depth of 2 mm), common melanocytic nevi, and matched normal skin, and defined a list of the top 40 miRNAs that clearly segregated melanomas into thin (0.75 mm) and thick (2.7 mm) groups.

Then in a validation cohort the team took 167 different melanoma samples and analyzed those 40 miRNAs and found a striking molecular signature: Aggressively invasive melanomas had higher levels of miRNA21 and lower levels of the miRNA precursor let-7b than less advanced melanomas did.

“The surprise was a correlation to tumor mitotic index, a parameter used to determine prognosis, and lymphovascular invasion, which notes the presence of tumor cells in lymphatic vessels.” In previous research, the investigators had found that detection of lymphovascular invasion in the primary tumor may aid in identifying melanoma patients with the propensity to develop sentinel lymph node metastasis.

Increased miRNA21 levels were significantly associated with invasive depth, tumor mitotic index, lymphovascular invasion, and American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) stage. In contrast, let-7b levels were significantly decreased in invasive and in situ melanomas compared with common and dysplastic nevi. Decreased let-7b levels were significantly associated with invasive depth, Clark’s level, ulceration, and AJCC stage.

These results “define a distinct set of miRNAs associated with invasive and aggressive melanoma phenotype,” said Dadras. This molecular signature could potentially aid oncologists in identifying which patients should opt for more aggressive cancer treatments. “Once oncologists receive a report of a melanoma diagnosis, they could consider prognostication. Measuring miRNA in clinical samples with PCR, which we are setting up now, could lead to useful information to determine whether the patient is at high or low risk of metastases, how vigilant to monitor the tumor, or whether to do imaging or not,” said Dadras.

The next step is to develop meaningful clinical assays to be able to detect the expression of miRNA from tumor specimens. “We could look at miRNA21 and let-7b to measure expression levels by PCR or FISH,” and such an assay would be low cost. The plan now is to perform a large clinical validation set to offer as a clinical test of the study results, he said.

Information from miRNAs may also help provide information about the diagnosis of an atypical melanoma: “This would be important information to accurately define a tumor as melanoma or nevus. For example, in pediatric melanoma, Spitz tumors may appear to be atypical and behave in a benign fashion, but we can’t use morphology alone to make a diagnosis.”

The research also provides an intriguing lead into the epidemiological connection between sun damage and melanoma development. It is well established that exposure to ultraviolet light is a risk factor for skin cancer, but not because exposure directly damages DNA: “There are no studies linking DNA damage from UV light to melanoma.”

Other researchers have demonstrated that miRNA21 is a target of PTEN, a powerful tumor suppressor. “UV exposure can increase miRNA21, so perhaps extensive sun exposure downregulates PTEN, decreasing the capacity of the cell to protect itself from UV damage,” said Dadras, who noted that he plans to histologically correlate increased miRNA21 to UV damage.

The ability of miRNAs to control diverse gene expression in cancer makes them ideal candidates for therapeutic applications. Already, tests are underway to selectively modulate miRNAs through antisense inhibition or replacement through local or parenteral injection routes. Dadras said he foresees the development of anti-miRNA21 therapy in melanoma that would increase let-7b.

“We used to think that DNA was everything, but now research shows that non-coding RNA should not be ignored. The great majority of the genome is not expressed. MiRNAs, although non-coding, could have significant impact in melanoma genesis.”

UConn Professor Finds That Ancient Grains Reveal Roots of Early Social Inequality

Published by UConn Today on June 7, 2017

Loretta Waldman

study published recently in Nature Plants sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria.

An international team that included researchers from UConn and the University of Oxford used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred ancient grains to reconstruct the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time.

Alexia Smith in the lab.
Alexia Smith, associate professor of archaeology, in the lab.

UConn’s Alexia Smith, associate professor of archaeology, had gathered the plant samples from two sites – Tell Leilan in 2006 and Tell Zeidan in 2009.

The ancient grains indicated that as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plow more resources – such as manure – into existing, more intensively managed fields.

“Plant remains can be preserved on archaeological sites for thousands of years providing a record of the range of plants used for food, construction, or fuel,” says Smith, an archaeobotanist. “They document when crops were first domesticated, and give us information on the ways that people used plants to both respond to and create environmental and social change through time.”

Smith looked at the seeds in an archaeological context, asking questions about where the seed might be coming from, such as a hearth or a storage facility, and from an ethno-political perspective, to reconstruct the plants’ significance.

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plow animals, both of which could be monopolized by powerful families and institutions.

“This is a study very much rooted in ancient plant remains,” Smith says. “They really give us insight into social change, and here we have an insight into how people were responding to social change.”

The findings reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

Project leader and professor Amy Bogaard from Oxford’s School of Archaeology, notes, “each cereal grain found buried in an archaeological site holds within it a record of the environmental conditions under which it was grown.

“We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming. As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: for example, with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed.”

The team involved in the study included researchers from Leiden University, National Museum of Denmark, University of Cambridge, Harvard University, Lawrence University, University of Warsaw, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

Smith’s work on the study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

UConn Professor Discusses the Science Behind Successful Weight Loss

Published on WNPR on June 6, 2017

Lydia Brown & Lucy Nalpathanchil

“Eat less, exercise more” is a familiar mantra, especially to anyone who has ever tried shedding a few pounds. But do those four words, in fact, hold the key to successful weight loss and management?

This hour, we find out what researchers at Tufts University have learned about the relationship between diet, exercise, and the numbers on your bathroom scale.

Are you struggling with your weight? What approaches have you taken in your quest to “get fit”? As always, we want to hear from you.

And later: a look at Connecticut’s summer meals for kids. We find out what local communities are doing to help children access free food.

GUESTS:

  • Dr. Sai Krupa Das – Scientist at the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA-Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University
  • Dr. Marlene Schwartz – Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at UConn
  • Dr. David Baer – Research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Shannon Yearwood – Chief Strategy Officer with End Hunger Connecticut!

You can listen to their discussion here: Gain Some, Lose Some: The Science Behind Successful Weight Loss

 

Science to Startup: A Connecticut Company Plays the Startup Game in the Land of Innovation

Published in UConn Magazine in the Summer ’17 Issue

Colin Poitras

Biochemist Mark Driscoll is trying to crack open a stubborn microbe in his lab at UConn’s technology commercialization incubator in Farmington, Connecticut.

He needs to get past the microorganism’s tough outer shell to grab a sample of its DNA. Once he has the sample, Driscoll can capture the bacterium’s genetic ‘fingerprint,’ an important piece of evidence for doctors treating bacterial infections and scientists studying bacteria in the human microbiome. It’s a critical element in the new lab technology Driscoll and his business partner, Thomas Jarvie, are developing.

But at the moment, his microbe isn’t cooperating. Driscoll tries breaking into it chemically. He boils it. He pokes and pushes against the outer wall. Nothing happens. This drug-resistant pathogen is a particularly bad character that has evolved and strengthened its shell over generations. It isn’t giving up its secrets easily.

Stymied, Driscoll picks up the phone and calls Professor Peter Setlow at UConn Health. A noted expert in molecular biology and biophysics, Setlow has been cracking open microbes since 1968.

A few hours later, Driscoll jumps on a shuttle and takes a quarter-mile trip up the road to meet with Setlow in person. He explains his predicament. Setlow nods and says, “Here’s what I would do.”

And it works.

Breakthrough

That brief encounter, that collaboration between a talented young scientist and a prominent UConn researcher working in Connecticut’s bioscience corridor, not only results in an important breakthrough for Driscoll’s and Jarvie’s new business — called Shoreline Biome — but also leads to a proposal for more research, a new finding, and at least one patent application.

In a broader sense, it also exemplifies the collaborative relationships that UConn and state officials hope will flourish under the University’s Technology Incubation Program or TIP, which provides laboratory space, business mentoring, scientific support, and other services to entrepreneurs in Connecticut’s growing bioscience sector. At incubators in Storrs and Farmington, TIP currently supports 35 companies that specialize in things like health care software, small molecule therapies, vaccine development, diagnostics, bio-agriculture, and water purification.

The program has assisted more than 85 startup companies since it was established in 2003. Those companies have had a significant impact on Connecticut’s economy, raising more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and pay equity, and more than $45 million in revenue.

“This is not a coincidence,” says Driscoll as he recounts his microbe- cracking story in a small office across the hall from his lab. “This is what government is supposed to do. It’s supposed to set up an environment where these kinds of things can happen.”

Bold Moves

Driscoll and Jarvie, a physical chemist and genomics expert, arrived at UConn’s Farmington incubator in June 2015 with a bold business concept but virtually no idea of how to get it off the ground. Both had worked in the labs at 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut, one of the state’s early bioscience success stories that ended up moving to the San Francisco area.

Driscoll and Jarvie decided to stay in Connecticut. They had talked about starting a business based on new technology that would more quickly and precisely identify different strains of bacteria in the human microbiome, the trillions of good and bad microorganisms living in our bodies that scientists believe play an important role in our health and well-being. The study of the microbiome is a rapidly growing area of biomedical research. There are currently more than 300 clinical trials of microbiome-based treatments in progress, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the global market for microbiome products is estimated to exceed $600 million a year by 2023.

“It’s the most frightening thing I have ever done,” says Driscoll with a chuckle. “As scientists, we know that nine out of 10 new companies fail. That sound you constantly hear in the back of your head is the ‘hiss’ of money being burned. The pressure is intense. You have to reach the next level before your money goes to zero because when the money’s gone, you’re done.”

Fortunately, Driscoll and Jarvie’s decision to launch a bioscience company came at a time when Connecticut and UConn were committing resources to strengthen the state’s bioscience research sector.

As part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Bioscience Connecticut initiative approved in 2011, Connecticut’s legislature allocated $864 million to efforts that would position the state as a leader in bioscience research and innovation. That initiative included the expansion of UConn’s technology incubator site in Farmington, the opening of The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (JAX), and major upgrades at UConn Health to boost its research capacity.

Those resources were tailor made for a fledgling bioscience company like Shoreline Biome. Driscoll and Jarvie remember the early days when company ‘meetings’ took place at a local Starbucks, their official address and warehouse was Driscoll’s garage, and they didn’t even have a lab.

But they did have a vision of what Shoreline Biome could be. They knew that George Weinstock, one of the world’s foremost experts in microbial genomics and one of their customers at 454 Life Sciences, had just arrived at Jax. They reached out to him with an offer to collaborate. Weinstock not only agreed, he became their principal scientific advisor.

About the same time, Driscoll and Jarvie began exploring the possibility of renting space at TIP in Farmington because of its proximity to people like Weinstock and Setlow. “If you’re looking to start a bioscience company, in some parts of the state the cost for commercial space is going to be more than your will to live,” says Driscoll. “But here, the rent is graduated. So we were able stay here in the beginning for just a few hundred bucks a month.”

The pair also obtained $150,000 in pre-seed funding from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public investment authority supporting innovative, growing companies; and a $500,000 equity investment from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF).

Along with the pre-seed investment funds, CBIF’s staff helped guide Driscoll and Jarvie through the early stages of business development and introduced them to the investment community. AndCBIF member Patrick O’Neill took a seat on Shoreline Biome’s board. O’Neill’s business savvy has been crucial to the company’s early success, says Driscoll.

Tracking the Bad Guys

The lab kit Driscoll and Jarvie are currently testing is a low-cost, off-the-shelf tool that replaces hours of painstaking hands-on processing of patient samples for bacteria DNA testing. It’s about getting DNA out of the bacteria from a complicated environmental sample and doing that in a fast, cheap, and comprehensive way, explains Jarvie.

Researchers and medical professionals have previously relied on targeted testing and laboratory cultures to identify different bacteria strains. But many bacteria species are hard to grow in the lab, making identification and confirmation difficult. Even when scientists can confirm the presence of a bacteria such as salmonella in a patient sample, the findings are often limited, which can impact diagnosis and treatment.

“The DNA fingerprint region in a bacteria is about 1,500 bases long,” says Jarvie. “Most of the sequencing technologies out there are only getting a fraction of that, like 150 bases or 10 percent. It’s like relying on a small segment of a fingerprint as opposed to getting the entire fingerprint. You can’t really identify the organisms that well.”

Jarvie describes the difference this way. Say you are running tests for mammals on three different samples. Current sequencing technology would identify the samples as a primate, a canine, and a feline. With Shoreline Biome’s technology, the results are more definitive. They would say, ‘you have a howler monkey, a timber wolf, and a mountain lion.’

That level of specificity is important to researchers and medical professionals studying or tracking a bacteria strain or disease. Driscoll says the kit is not limited to identifying harmful bacteria like salmonella, listeria, or MRSA. It also can assist researchers investigating the microbiome’s role in maintaining the so-called ‘good’ bacteria that keeps us healthy as well as its role in other ailments such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and even mental health disorders like schizophrenia.

For example, the kit easily lets a researcher compare 50 bacteria samples from individuals with multiple sclerosis and 50 samples from individuals who don’t have the disease to see whether the presence or absence of a particular bacteria in the microbiome plays a role in impacting the body’s nervous system.

“If you don’t make it cost effective, if you don’t make it practical, people won’t do it,” says Driscoll. “It’s like going to the moon. Sure, we can go to the moon. But it takes a lot of time and money to build a rocket and get it ready. With our kit, all that stuff for the moon shot is already pre-made. We provide the whole system right off the shelf. You don’t need to know how to extract DNA fingerprints, or use a DNA sequencer, or analyze DNA. All you have to do is buy our kit and turn the crank.”

As part of their product testing, Shoreline Biome is working with researchers at UConn Health and JAX to learn more about a particularly toxic and potentially fatal intestinal bacterium, Clostridium difficile, otherwise known as C.diff.

“People who track this disease, especially in hospitals where it is a problem, want to know how it gets in there,” says Driscoll. “Does it come from visitors? Does it come from doctors? You have all these spores floating around. You can answer that by looking at the bacteria’s genetics. But if you can’t get to the bacteria’s DNA, you can’t identify it.

“Our tool cracks open the microbes so you can get at their DNA and fingerprint the bugs to see what you have,” says Driscoll. “It lets people see everything. And we’ve simplified the software so you don’t have to be a skilled microbiologist to do it. A person in the lab can sit down and with just a few clicks, all of this stuff comes up and tells you these are the bad guys, the infectious organisms that are present, and these are the good guys.”

Deer In the Headlights

While their focus is certainly on growing Shoreline Biome, Driscoll and Jarvie also have come to appreciate Connecticut’s broader effort in building a strong bioscience research core to help drive the state’s economy. Providing scientist entrepreneurs with an affordable base of operations, working labs, access to high-end lab equipment, and a cadre of science peers ready to help, takes some of the pressure off when launching a new company.

“This is all part of a plan the governor and the legislature have put together to have this stuff here,” Driscoll says. “You can sit around and hope that companies form or you can try to make your own luck. You set up a situation where you are likely to succeed by bringing in JAX, opening up a UConn TIP incubator across the street, and setting up funding. Is that going to start a company? Who knows? But then you have Tom and I, two scientists kicked loose from a company, and we notice there are all these things happening here. We could have left for California or gone to the Boston-Cambridge research corridor, but instead, we decided to stay in Connecticut.”

Mostafa Analoui, UConn’s executive director of venture development, including TIP, says the fact that two top scientists like Driscoll and Jarvie decided to stay in Connecticut speaks to the state’s highly skilled talent pool and growing innovation ecosystem.

“Instead of going to Boston or New York, they chose to stay in Connecticut, taking advantage of UConn’s TIP and other innovation programs provided by the state to grow their company, create jobs, and benefit society with their cutting-edge advances in microbiome research,” says Analoui.

UConn provides critical support to ventures at all stages of development, but it is especially important for startups, says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health.

When asked if they still have those moments of abject fear that they aren’t going to make it, Driscoll and Jarvie laugh.

“Every day is a deer-in-the-headlights moment,” says Driscoll. “Even when things are going well, it’s still a huge risk.”

“It never goes away,” agrees Jarvie. But during a recent visit to the Shoreline Biome lab, both men are in good spirits.

The company met the 12-month goals set in their CBIF funding agreement in just six months. For that effort, Driscoll and Jarvie received another $250,000 check, the second of their two CBIF payments.

In the world of business startups, however, there is little time for extended celebration. The two scientists mark the milestone with smiles and a fist bump, then turn around and get back to work.

UConn Today: The Lack of Black Men in Medicine

Published in UConn Today on June 5, 2017

Kristen Cole

In the dozen years it has been on television, the fictional medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” has garnered numerous awards. But the show’s biggest accomplishment may be the diversity of the actors, cast as doctors using a color-blind technique.

Unfortunately, racial diversity in the field is not reality.

In fact, medical school matriculation rates for black males have failed to surpass those from 35 years ago, according to a recent analysis of data from the Association of American Medical Colleges and information from a paper by Marc Nivet, presented by two UConn Health researchers.

African-American men make up just 2.8 percent of the applicants to medical school. Out of all African-American applicants, only 38 percent are men, and black males who are unsuccessful in their first application are less likely to reapply than their white counterparts, they write.

Their findings are set against a backdrop in which there have been overall increases in the rate of black male college graduates and a prodigious expansion of medical schools in the U.S.

“The absence of Black males in medical school represents an American crisis that threatens efforts to effectively address health disparities and excellence in clinical care,” according to their paper in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

The article was authored by Cato T. Laurencin, the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (CICATS); and Marsha Murray, research assistant in community medicine and healthcare. It was funded by CICATS and the National Institutes for Health.

To reverse the trend, they say, it is necessary to ascertain the societal factors that support growth and success of black males in medicine.

Laurencin and Murray outline challenges influencing black males, including financial cost, bias and stereotypes, career attractiveness, and underperforming schools. The high probability of black males attending underperforming schools that lack pre-medical resources influences the number of students in the “pipeline.”

“The trends demonstrate our inability to attract and sustain a diverse physician workforce,” they write, adding, “The creation of a diverse medical workforce is crucial to quality healthcare.”

Research has shown that racial and ethnic diversity in medical education improves the learning and cross-cultural competencies of all doctors. And minority medical students are more likely to work in underserved communities and, therefore, positively influence access to care.

“You cannot have a great medical center without the presence of black and other diverse doctors,” says Laurencin. “That’s what the great places recognize.”

It doesn’t just make for great television.

Words of Wisdom from UConn’s Michael Lynch

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on June 5, 2017

Michael Patrick Lynch

“Humility” isn’t a word that most academics — or Americans — identify with. Indeed, if there is a single attitude most closely associated with our culture, it’s the opposite of humility. The defining trait of the age seems to be arrogance — in particular, the kind of arrogance personified by our tweeter in chief; the arrogance of thinking that you know it all and that you don’t need to improve because you are just so great already.

But our culture’s infatuation with this kind of arrogance doesn’t come out of the blue. Trump is a symptom and not the cause of a larger trend, one that rewards dogmatic certainty and punishes those who acknowledge the possible limitations of their own point of view. Liberal white male professors like myself are hardly immune. And part of the academic culture we’ve helped to create — including the rise of aggressive “no platforming” tactics to prevent conservatives from speaking on some campuses — has only fed into the perception that academics are no more willing to engage in dialogue and debate than Trump supporters.

Fueling this trend of know-it-all arrogance is the oft-cited polarization of the American people, encouraged by our use of technology. The internet didn’t create this polarization, but it does speed it up. That’s partly because the analytics that drive the internet don’t just get us more information; they get us more of the information we want.

Everything from the ads we read to the political news in our Facebook feed is tailored to our preferences. That’s incredibly useful for buying shoes and finding good restaurants. It is easier than ever to get and share information, but the information we get often reflects ourselves as much as it does anything else. Less noticed is that this has an effect not only on how we regard others, but on how we regard ourselves.

One way the internet distorts our picture of ourselves is by feeding the human tendency to overestimate our knowledge of how the world works. Most of us know what it’s like to think we remember more from high-school physics or history than we actually do. As the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have detailed recently, such overestimation extends farther than you might think: Ask yourself whether you can really explain how a toilet or a zipper works, and you may find yourself surprisingly stumped. You assume you know how things work when you often don’t know at all.

This sort of ignorance is partly due to the fact that human beings aren’t isolated knowing machines. We live in an economy of knowledge that distributes cognitive and epistemic labor among specialists. That’s a good thing — no one person can know everything, or even very much. But put all the doctors, scientists, mechanics, and plumbers together, and we collectively know quite a bit.

Yet this often means we blur the line between what’s inside our heads and what’s not. Some philosophers have argued that this blurring is actually justified because knowing itself is often an extended process, distributed in space. When I know something because of your expert testimony — say, that my car’s alternator is broken — what I know is partly in your head and partly in mine. If that’s right, then living in a knowledge economy literally increases my knowledge because knowing is not just an individual phenomenon.

Suppose this extended, distributed picture of knowledge is right. Add the personalized internet, with its carefully curated social-media feeds and individualized search results, and you get not one knowledge economy, but many different ones, each bounded by different assumptions of which sources you can trust and what counts as evidence and what doesn’t. The result is not only an explosion of overconfidence in what you individually understand but an active encouragement of epistemic arrogance. The Internet of Us becomes one big reinforcement mechanism, getting us all the information we are already biased to believe, and encouraging us to regard those in other bubbles as misinformed miscreants. We know it all — the internet tells us so.

Ideology plays a significant role here. We know people disagree with us on a range of issues, from climate change to taxes to vaccines. Indeed, we disagree on so much that it can seem, as one political commentator recently put it, that there are no facts anymore. That’s a way of expressing a seductive line of thought: There just is no way of escaping your perspective or biases. Every time you try to get outside of your own perspective, you just get more information filtered through your own perspective. As a consequence, objective truth is just irrelevant — either we’ll never know it or it doesn’t exist in the first place.

This is an old philosophical idea. The Greek philosopher Protagoras expressed it by saying “man is the measure of all things.” That can seem liberating — we all get to invent our own truth! And it has certainly had its fair share of contemporary supporters. Academe, in particular, has been complicit in devaluing objective truth and in the subsequent rise of intellectual arrogance. The postmodernist generation of humanists (and I am one of them) grew up in the 80s and 90s distrusting metanarratives and the very idea of objectivity. But while these movements rightly made us aware of how the implicit lines of institutional, gendered, and racial power affect what passes for truth in a society, they were sometimes taken further to encourage a complete — and often incoherent — rejection of the idea that anything is true (except that rejection itself apparently).

Skepticism about truth is really more self-rationalization than good philosophy. It protects our biases and discourages us from trying to see ourselves as who we really are. More than that, a rejection of objective truth invites despotism simply because it collapses truth into whatever those in power allow to pass for truth in your bubble. And once that is accepted, then the very idea of speaking truth to power becomes moot. You can’t speak truth to power when power speaks truth by definition.

Our cultural embrace of epistemic or intellectual arrogance is the result of a toxic mix of technology, psychology, and ideology. To combat it, we have to reconnect with some basic values, including ones that philosophers have long thought were essential both to serious intellectual endeavors and to politics.

One of those ideas, as I just noted, is belief in objective truth. But another, less-noted concept is intellectual humility. By intellectual humility, I refer to a cluster of attitudes that we can take toward ourselves — recognizing your own fallibility, realizing that you don’t really know as much as you think, and owning your limitations and biases.

But being intellectually humble also means taking an active stance. It means seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of other people. Being open to improvement is more than just being open to change. And it isn’t just a matter of self-improvement — using your genius to know even more. It is a matter of seeing your view as capable of improvement because of what others contribute.

Intellectual humility is not the same as skepticism. Improving your knowledge must start from a basis of rational conviction. That conviction allows you to know when to stop inquiring, when to realize that you know enough — that the earth really is round, the climate is warming, the Holocaust happened, and so on. That, of course, is tricky, and many a mistake in science and politics have been made because someone stopped inquiring before they should have. Hence the emphasis on evidence; being intellectually humble requires being responsive to the actual evidence, not to flights of fancy or conspiracy theories.

In a democracy, intellectual humility as I’ve defined it is most important for those in power, be it political power or a more diffuse but wide-ranging cultural power. That’s partly what makes institutions that encourage and protect rational dissent — like a free press and academic freedom — of such crucial importance. It is not just, as John Stuart Mill argued, that free inquiry is apt to see truth win out in the end — an overly optimistic view, I’ve always thought — but the fact that researchers can pursue lines of inquiry even if they make those in power uncomfortable. Such institutions, at their best, encourage the pursuit of truth via evidence — and as such, they have the potential to remind us that power, and our own bubbles, are not the measure of all things.

Yet institutional protections themselves are not quite enough. We need to incorporate intellectual humility — what John Dewey called the “scientific attitude” — as a cultural norm. “Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail,” Dewey noted, “if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.”

Dewey knew that democracies can’t function if their citizens don’t have conviction — an apathetic electorate is no electorate at all. But our democracy also can’t function if we don’t seek, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space where we can listen to each other and trade reasons back and forth. And that’s one reason that teaching our students the value of empathy, of reasons and dialogue, and the value and nature of evidence itself, is crucial — in fact, now more than ever. Encouraging evidential epistemologies helps combat intellectual arrogance.

Overcoming toxic arrogance is not easy, and our present political moment is not making it any easier. But if we want to live in a tolerant society where we are not only open-minded but willing to learn from others, we need to balance humility and conviction. We can start by looking past ourselves — and admitting that we don’t know it all.