Blaine Brownell is an architect obsessed with sustainable building materials. He introduces a wonderful world of products made from repurposed materials and provides a glimpse of what a post-fossil fuel world might look like.

By Marty Graham, 05.22.07
This transcranial magnetic stimulation device is made by Neuralieve, based in Sunnyvale, California.

SAN DIEGO — The next time you visit a psychiatrist, don’t be put off by the helmet-shaped device crawling with electrodes in the corner of the office. It’s there to help.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, a technique for treating clinical depression, uses a device placed on a patient’s head that delivers a pulse to the gray matter. Psychiatrists at the American Psychiatric Association meeting here are unabashedly optimistic about its potential for treating tough cases. It’s in the final stages of FDA review, and could come to market as soon as the end of the year.

“It’s much less invasive — patients can go home or go back to work afterwards,” says Shirlene Sampson, an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. “And patients aren’t exposed to social risk with their insurance companies and employers.”

TMS works by creating an electromagnetic pulse that doesn’t disturb the skull or scalp, but can reach two to three centimeters into the brain to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and paralimbic blood flow, increasing the serotonin output and the dopamine and norepinephrine functions.

“We have to be sure to get really good contact with the scalp so we reach the most effective areas of the brain,” says Sampson. “In older patients where the brain has shrunk, we have to be very careful to get any results.”

TMS can be done in an office setting and doesn’t require anesthesia, which is needed for traditional ECT. Side effects include post-application headaches, muscle twitches and pain at the application site. The risk of seizure remains, but researchers worked very hard to avoid them, and they occurred very rarely.

Ten companies — including five based in Europe, two American companies and two in Korea — are now lined up to produce TMS headgear, which ranges in appearance from something like an ultrasound sensor mounted on a dental-drill arm to a cap resembling a beauty-parlor hair dryer.

Depression is increasingly recognized as a destructive, disabling, chronic illness with treatments that often fail patients. Studies yield conflicting results — patients can respond well to placebos and exercise, while drugs can fail some and succeed for others. And short-term results often don’t translate into long-term results as patients bolt from treatment because of side effects or lack of effect.

One of big problems in treating depression, where a bout is likely to lead to other bouts, is getting patients to stay on their therapy, studies show. And, while combinations of therapies initially seem to help the 30 percent and 40 percent of patients whose depression resists drug treatment, remission rates remain low and cures are elusive.

The downside is that it takes 20 to 30 sessions of 40 minutes each for at least six weeks to get a good result. But patients stick with TMS treatment better than with medication or electroshock, researchers say. It’s also being tested for treating migraines.

May 22, 2007

About 25,000 inventors from all walks of life entered the Modern Marvels/Invent Now annual contest, which is run by the History Channel and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The grand prize ($25,000) went to the Enertia house, which was invented by an engineer and former log-home architect, Michael Sykes. It’s a design for a home that heats and cools itself, which benefits both the homeowner and the environment.

Two factors contribute to this effect. First, the entire house is made of southern yellow pine. According to Mr. Sykes, this wood is especially efficient at maintaining a constant temperature; it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night.

Second, air circulates in a convection cycle from top to bottom of the house, constantly redistributing the heat.

Mr. Sykes, who has built 80 of these homes, was inspired by the way the earth’s own atmosphere keeps the planet at a relatively constant comfortable temperature despite the frigidity of space. It occurred to him that a house could have its own atmosphere, which might work the same way. As a side benefit, he says, one Enertia house has an environmental impact akin to taking 50 cars off the road.

Interview with Michael Sykes

Q: What is the “sunspace?” It looks like a sort of windowed atrium the full height of the house, but how does it play into the envelope concept?

A: The sunspace is always on the south, or the side that’s within 35 degrees of south. It connects to the attic, which connects to the space between the double north walls, which connects to the basement. There are metal grilles in the sunspace floor to complete the convection loop.

The space in the north double wall is also a great place to put pipes and wires, which would otherwise be a problem, since the walls are solid glulams [glued wooden blocks].

Q: How did you get into this? Where did you pick up all the science?

A: I built houses to pay my way through engineering school, and I was asked to build a log house for a friend. We used the resinous local southern yellow pine; everybody else used white pine or cedar, which are lighter. To my amazement, it was more energy-efficient than anything I had built — but it was getting too hot on the sunspace side. I could have put in ducts and fans to move the heat, but that takes energy.

At the Equator, the sun creates what’s called a Hadley cell; the weather equalizes temperatures, rushing warmth to the polar regions. What I needed was a Hadley cell [for the house], and that required an atmosphere. The house already had a sunspace, an attic, and a basement; simply add a space in the north wall, and you have an atmosphere. Short-wave sun comes in, but long-wave heat energy cannot get back out. It’s like the greenhouse effect that warms the earth, but in miniature.

We started building houses, one by one. I would design, draw, and chart them. Emily, my partner, would cut and number the wood blocks (she listed her occupation as “homemaker”). Each one was tweaked, better than he last.

Q: Which part of the system does your patent protect?

A: The patent is on a process to enhance the energy storage of the wood by seeding the natural resin with crystals to enhance the phase-change effect [from liquid to solid as the temperature changes].

Interestingly, resin is a waste product of the paper-making industry, and most paper mills would pay us to take it. But we don’t have the equipment to do this yet, so for now, we seek out lumber that’s dense with resin, and grown on clay soils from which the trees take up minerals. There is plenty of this in the South.

Q: Does geothermal energy play a part in the Enertia system?

A: It plays the biggest part in the summer: the convection effect draws air from the cooler basement. But even in the winter, it plays a part: the 55-degree earth tempers the house’s atmosphere (the envelope) because the sun only has to raise the temperature from 55 degrees, not -30 or whatever the outside temperature is. The interior shell will never freeze, and pipes are protected.

Q: On your Web site, you say that these homes are *not* sealed up tightly, which is the usual approach to insulating, but that the constant airflow helps them “breathe.” Is that why, in the photos on your Web site, none of the homes are painted? Because that would stop the “breathing”?

A: You can stain the house, but you should not paint it, for that reason. There are opaque stains that offer all the colors of paint if you want to do that, but a lot of clients just like the [all-wood] look.

Q: Is there any insulation, vapor barrier, sheeting, or drywall in these homes?

A: There is no traditional insulation in the walls, because the wood, because of its cells, is insulative. There is traditional insulation in the roof, the inner shell floor, the inner shell ceiling, and around the foundation. There is a vapor barrier in the inner shell ceiling. There can be drywall on the interior, and in the partition walls that divide up the rooms in the inner shell.

Q: If these homes are self-heating and self-cooling, why do they also have heating and cooling systems?

A: Most banks won’t give you a mortgage unless you have at least a minimal heating system, even in the Western states where the sun shines so much that some homes could do without.

Only the houses in hot humid climates have AC, and it’s for dehumidifying more than cooling.

Q: What do the critics say?

A: Two questions always come up. First, there is a group that thinks using wood for houses is bad for the environment — that using trees for any reason is bad.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Wood is the only structural building material that is renewed on a scale vast enough to assure there will always be more than needed. And all of our wood comes from tree farms. No virgin wood was harmed to build this house!

There is also a large group that thinks that using wood for energy is good only if you burn the wood or distill it into ethanol or biodiesel. Again, nothing could be further from the truth; when you burn the wood, or wood-distilled liquid or gas, you release the carbon dioxide again.

Second, I often hear: “Concrete, brick, and stone are better for storing heat energy.”

They do store energy — but only *specific* energy, which means that as energy is put into the stone, brick, or concrete, the materials get hotter. While wood stores some specific energy, it also stores latent energy, which means the temperature is constant while the wood resins, lignins and cellulose goes through a phase-change. Luckily, that temperature is around 70 degrees F. In a house, you want the temperature to be constant.

Q: What will you do with your prize winnings?

A: The guy you saw following me around, Frank Weller, is a documentary filmmaker. He has filmed us for five years, and is pitching his film to “Nova” and similar venues. Broke like us, of course. So we’re going to use the $25K to finish the film and take it to PBS.

We all think this is a major, clean solution to a major world problem, or we would not have stuck with it for 25 years. The sooner people learn about it, the better. Let’s see where it takes us.

What it’s used for: Tyrosinemia Type 1 (a rare genetic disorder that can cause liver failure in infants and young children)
Where it’s from: Red bottlebrush shrub
Sold by: Swedish Orphan International/Rare Disease Therapeutics

Can traditional Chinese medicine become a potent source of new drugs for the West? Asia’s richest man is betting on it.

by Kerry A. Dolan

Hold your nose if you take a tour of Shanghai Hutchison Pharmaceuticals’ factory on the industrial outskirts of China’s largest city. It’s where they make She Xiang Bao Xin, a pill made from synthetic deer musk, synthetic ox gallstones, an enemy-repelling toad secretion and four herbs. The odor hits you on the first floor, where masked workers shake the pills on enormous metal trays to separate the oversize ones. One floor up another large batch is brewing in a dozen 3-foot-tall metal vats. Adherents of traditional Chinese medicine cherish these pills for their heart-protecting powers. Shanghai Hutchison sold 200 million doses last year for $8.7 million, with sales up 17% from 2005.

Forty-five minutes away from the musk are the gleaming labs of Shanghai Hutchison Pharma’s sibling company, Hutchison MediPharma. This place is easier on the senses. A cadre of Chinese nationals with medical degrees and doctorates in biology and chemistry from North American universities and résumés that include Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Amgen, screen thousands of chemicals found inside Chinese herbs and plants on the latest high-speed machines. They’re looking for promising drug candidates to patent, like all the many labs in Shanghai’s pharma gulch. Roche is right across the street, Novartis and Eli Lilly down the block.

The two companies, Shanghai Hutchison and Hutchison MediPharma, straddle the old and new worlds of Chinese medicine, yet, amazingly, they share the same parent, Hutchison China MediTech, or Chi-Med. The Hong Kong company is going forward and backward at once. It aims to expand the market for traditional Chinese medicine while harvesting modern drugs from Asian flora. “It’s a massive objective we’ve set. We’re trying to modernize and globalize Chinese medicine,” says Chi-Med Chief Executive Christian Hogg, 42.

The name Hutchison can only mean one thing: the presence of Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man and chairman of the globe-girdling conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, which has invested $72 million in Chi-Med since its inception in 2000. Chi-Med listed 28% of its outstanding shares on London’s AIM exchange last May; Hutchison owns the other 72%.

Chi-Med is a minnow compared with Hutchison Whampoa’s other concerns. The company lost $10 million last year on revenue of $58 million, up 52% over 2005, mostly from sales of the musk pill, a treatment for respiratory infection and an angina drug. But Li, 78, is so keen on the growth opportunity that he devotes some of his valuable time to signing off on Chi-Med joint ventures.

MediPharma has two drugs in mid-stage clinical trials in the U.S., one to augment radiation therapy on head and neck cancer and the other to treat Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The active ingredient in the Crohn’s drug is a chemical found in an herb common in China called Indian echinacea or rice bitters. If approved, the drug would compete with J&J’s Remicade, which brought in $3 billion last year from treating Crohn’s and other diseases.

In November Procter & Gamble signed a two-year agreement with Chi-Med to screen traditional medicines for new ingredients for P&G beauty products. That same month Merck KGaA of Germany agreed to develop anticancer drugs with Chi-Med. The terms of these deals were not disclosed.

China’s approach to medicine is in transition. Many doctors trained in Western medicine scoff at traditional Chinese medicine’s lack of scientific grounding (even as they plumb its medicine cabinet for secrets). “We are not a folklore-based company,” says Samantha Du, the U.S.-trained biochemist in charge of Chi-Med’s drug development. The nation’s booming middle class readily embraces Western medicine but thinks nothing of adding a dash of ancient herbs to a meal. Chi-Med’s business development manager, Michael Leung, lives in Hong Kong with his wife, a private banker. “She takes bird-saliva nest and puts it in soup to help her skin look young,” he says.

Sales of Western pharmaceuticals in China grew 91% in five years to $13 billion in 2005, according to the Boston Consulting Group. That’s one-twentieth the size of the U.S. market but roughly equal, by some estimates, to the traditional Chinese medicine market. Some of this growth has been tainted by corruption. In 2005 Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China’s State Food & Drug Administration, was booted from office for taking bribes to obtain drug approvals, the Chinese media alleged. A fake version of one drug and improper production of another killed 21 people last year. Since last fall the agency has revoked 350 manufacturing licenses and vowed to tighten inspections, according to Chinese media.

A wave of herbal prospecting in China in the 1990s turned up little for several big firms such as Bayer, Eli Lilly and Pfizer. Novartis, however, scored a hit in 1998 with Coartem, an antimalarial drug that combines artemisinin, an extract from sweet wormwood, with a compound called lumefantrine. Sweet wormwood is used by Chinese herbalists to treat fever.

Last year MediGene of Germany got approval from the FDA for U.S. marketing of an ointment extracted from green tea leaves to treat genital warts. Sales in the U.S. are being handled by Bradley Pharmaceuticals. Cephalon sells a leukemia drug called Trisenox (arsenic trioxide). A similar active ingredient, arsenic stone, has long been used in China and elsewhere to treat fevers, depression and arthritis.

Chi-Med’s plant-finding took root in 1995, when Christian Hogg, an Englishman then at Procter & Gamble, was sent to introduce the Chinese to the company’s laundry detergents. While there, he got to know managers at Hutchison Whampoa, which owns 30% of P&G’s Chinese unit. In 1999 P&G transferred Hogg to Brussels, but he kept his passion for China.

Within six months he had hatched a business plan to bring Chinese medicine to the West, to be sold in fancy shops that would also offer acupuncture, massage and herbal treatments. Hutchison Managing Director Canning Fok liked that idea but also saw an opportunity to get in on sales of traditional Chinese medicine in China, a segment of the pharma business that had not yet opened to foreign investment. In 2000 Hutchison China MediTech was born. Hogg got enough money to go off and build the first few of what are now six Chinese herbal medicine shops in London, operating under the name Sen.

In 2000, when China finally opened the traditional medicine sector to foreign investment, Chi-Med was one of the first in. In 2001 it invested $35 million in joint ventures with two Chinese medicine companies, including the newly renamed Shanghai Hutchison Pharmaceuticals, and in 2005 put $17 million into a third firm.

Hogg wanted to set up an R&D arm but hadn’t the faintest idea how to run one. A recruiter found Samantha Du, a Chinese-born biochemist with a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and eight years’ experience at Pfizer. Du, now 42, was being groomed for management at Pfizer but decided it might be better to run her own operation. She moved from Groton, Conn. to Hong Kong in 2001.

The next year Du set up a new research lab in Shanghai, which has a good supply of disciplined scientists and is cosmopolitan enough to lure back Chinese scientists from U.S. drug firms. Chi-Med promised her a $27 million startup budget. Du recruited from companies such as Amgen, Pfizer and J&J.

Plant-derived drugs, called botanicals, are devilishly hard to develop because herbs and flowers contain so many chemical entities that it’s hard to pinpoint their biological targets at a molecular level. Still, pharmacy shelves are chockablock with drugs that are either derived from plants (morphine, from poppies) or inspired by herbal remedies (aspirin, from an ancient willow-bark extract). The best-understood Chinese herbs have already been well covered, but in the past few years Du and her staff have screened 10,000 traditional Chinese medicines looking for ones that influence cancers and the immune system and have come up with a handful of new prospects.

In 2004 the FDA streamlined the development of botanical drugs by allowing drugmakers to skip early-stage safety trials if a drug candidate comes from an herbal remedy that is safe and legally marketed already. Chi-Med took its Crohn’s disease drug into midstage trials two years earlier than it would have otherwise. Results are expected later this year. Chi-Med’s second compound, which sensitizes head and neck cancer cells to radiation, is approved for use in China. U.S. trials are under way.

Funds to fuel Chi-Med’s research will come from the brisk sales of deer-musk pills and Hutchison Whampoa’s deep purse. In a few years China’s economy will develop enough to support lucrative Western-style drug reimbursements. Says Hogg: “We’ll see 10% to 20% growth for the next 10 to 20 years.”

Executive director of SELF, Robert Freling, is lighting up the developing world and empowering self-sufficiency by delivering solar power to more than 2 billion people on the planet living without electricity.

Target Health Inc. met J. Craig Venter at a PopTech conference last October 2006, and before that at a Bio-IT-World conference. He is brilliant, highly competitive and woe to the person who either precedes or follows him, in a line of speakers. Venter follows the beat of a very different drummer. Craig Venter is a world class scientist and we raise our glass to him and to all the other maverick, great contributors to the fund of human knowledge.


Tissue Engineering: Making Blind Rats See

Adviser Q&A
Josh Wolfe, Forbes/Wolfe
Nanotech Report 04.24.07

When I first met the brilliant yet commercially pragmatic Shuguang Zhang, his work centered primarily on tissue engineering and energy. But days before this interview was going to print, he co-authored groundbreaking work on restoring vision in rats that were made blind from brain damage. The work, which uses self-assembling peptides to coax neurons to grow, might one day be critical for patients suffering from stroke or spinal cord injuries.

Zhang is now associate director of MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Postdoctoral work at MIT led to a position as a research scientist, and ultimately his current position. His early work at MIT led to the discovery of a self-assembling peptide system; such systems are the basis of Zhang’s research into plant-powered solar cells. His tissue re-engineering research is becoming commercialized at privately held 3DM, which is up against a number of others making strides in this field, such as Acorda Therapeutics, Baxter International, Sanofi-Aventis and Johnson & Johnson.

Forbes: Why are you so interested in developing an alternative source of energy?

Zhang: Because energy is so important for civilization. Oil supplies are running out, and we have not found an alternative except nuclear energy. Wind and hydropower are small potatoes. The other alternative is solar energy, which is nearly untapped. That has to be changed.

Solar energy is inexhaustible, and we must learn how to harvest it. I wrote a piece that said that if water is the matrix of life, and without water, life as we know it would not exist. Energy is the matrix of our civilization. Without energy, civilization as we know it would collapse. People cannot go backwards–once you have a car, you won’t walk a hundred miles a day. Once you have a mobile phone, you can’t live without it, and all of this requires energy.

The U.S. has not paid enough attention to this. There’s a Chinese proverb that you cannot go hunting when you’re hungry–you have to do it before you’re hungry. We cannot wait for the oil to run out.

How are you working on harvesting solar energy?

Plants and bacteria have been doing it for billions of years, and we’re learning from them. They have the most efficient machines for harvesting light from individual photons. Plants use the energy for growth, but we want to take the photons and convert them into electrons to produce electricity–for your phone, your car, your home. We’re taking the photosynthetic systems from plants to collect the photons, and then combining that with metal wires as a carrier to generate electricity. It’s very simple.
You first published research on this in 2004. How have the devices advanced since then?

In 2004 it was a new, breakthrough concept to combine the photosynthetic machinery, inorganic wire and a semiconductor material to harvest photons and convert them to electrons. We were only able to collect some of the electricity, and only did one monolayer of material, so there was a small surface area.

We realized afterward that if we could increase the surface area we could gather much more energy. One square mile of Manhattan has much more surface area than one square mile of a field in Wyoming, because you have the sides of all the buildings. So our first step was engineering to increase the surface area, and that paper will be published in a few months.

Also, in the 2004 work, we could only produce nanoamps of electricity, which is essentially useless. Now we have produced 100 microamps, so we only need to increase the current output by 10 to 100 times and we’re in business–that’s the range for watches, calculators, pacemakers and more.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

Long-term research support, from both government and industry. We wrote a grant proposal for the Department of Energy, which we thought would be very interested in our research. We only asked for $500,000 over three years, but we were turned down. We were told there was no additional money available for 2005, so no additional research funding could be provided. That seems very shortsighted. Also, most U.S. companies have little interest, but Japanese and European companies are very interested.

How long do you think it will take to commercialize the technology?

It’s a function of time and money. If nobody supports it and we do it on our own, it will take a long time–up to 20 or 50 years, or we may never finish. But if somebody has a vision and puts effort into it–like the Apollo program–it will go much faster if we have essential resources and manpower.

Stepping away from energy, is there anything new going on at 3DM?

3DM is focused on biological applications of self-assembling peptides, things like tissue repair, tissue engineering and medical technologies. We have a paper coming out in a few months on a new peptide nanofiber scaffold to repair nerves. We cut an animal’s optical nerve–the eye is intact but the animal can no longer see, like cutting phone cord but the phone itself is fine. When we put in this nanofiber scaffold, cells migrate along the scaffold to repair the nerve, and the animal’s vision returns in a few days.

Is there a person whose research you particularly admire?

J. Craig Venter. He’s a maverick. He accelerated sequencing the human genome, later moved on to sequence other genomes, and now he’s doing the soil genome. He’s finding hundreds and thousands of different bacteria in the soil, looking at the whole ecology system. It’s much more complex than the human genome.

He’s also done sequencing of ocean systems around the globe. He’s putting in a huge amount of effort to understand the science of the planet Earth and biodiversity. Doing that kind of work will help us understand everything from evolution to how cells interact with each other. His work is good not only for basic science but also humanity.

Bunker Roy

Chris Anderson

Thomas Barnett

Jesse Sullivan & Todd Kuiken

Neal Gershenfeld

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