Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Here's Why Online Journal Articles Make You Use More Paper, Not Less

I don't know about you, but I was never a real believer in the "paperless office".  I was always hopeful that the future would bring that big electronic resource where everything that could be read, browsed, admired, or referred to could be easily found.

Yes, we're getting there.

Today, with the proliferation of online scientific journals delivering millions of electronic documents, we can download journal articles, glance at the abstracts and figures, and decide that the paper is worth reading.

If it is, it's usually sent to a printer.

It's not surprising.   There was always something intuitive about holding a physical object like a book or magazine to read, or to put a pencil to paper and write.  There's an added benefit of tactile memory when actually holding an object being read (as opposed to an object displaying the text being read).  For instance, at the MIT Technology Review, David Zax writes:
For my money, I don’t see the value in ersatz storybook animations replicating turning pages. This, for me at least, is an uncanny valley that cannot be crossed. Paper and ink cannot be virtualized to my satisfaction, and it’s an article of faith for me (until the science proves me wrong) that the benefits of paper reading cannot be replicated.
And there's research to explain why this feeling exists.  At Scientific American, Ferris Jabr describes the many limitations of e-books, especially in helping to orient readers where they stand, so to speak, among the text they're wading through:
In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.
I'd have to agree with him.  I love reading e-books using Kindle for my iPad - the latest being Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz - but doing so was more work than it should have been, especially when pagination actively changes when switching from letter to landscape and vice versa.

As luck would have it, Jabr also linked to this study, which explained that there's an added cost to dealing with information through a computer, in that "consumption and production of information in a computer aided environment results in a dual-task situation consisting of both the completion of the assignment at hand and of handling the computer."

They found that 28% of participants in a reading comprehension study reported problems following text on a terminal, and that those using electronic terminals were more stressed and tired than those reading from paper.  In the end, one of the main conclusions was that people consumed information much more effectively when using paper.  In fact, the authors conclude stating this:

Computers [were] ... invented in order to save time and let people engage in more complex questions or leisure time; not as shown in this study, to impair performance and diminish the experience of work.
So in a small but significant way, finding out that there actually is a common tendency that makes people want to read from paper makes me feel a little less guilty about sending papers to the printer, though I still print on both sides.  The paper can, after all, be recycled.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Crowdsourcing Yields Great Research Ideas, Can Help You Land Funding Too

Here's an excellent article about the value of data sharing in both Pharma and academia, and how incentives are stacked up against doing so:
[Bernard] Munos believes that a radical change in leadership will be needed to steer any given pharma towards new, collaborative directions and away from a focus on insularity and protection of intellectual property. However, academics also remain wary of sharing, with career advancement still dependent on traditional models of publication and funding, where data are sequestered until the paper hits the presses. “The value system is structured in terms of 'keep your data to yourself and write papers and you'll go forward',” says [Gustavo] Stolovitzky. This means loss of time to the publication process and of vast volumes of assay data that never see the light of day.
The rest of the article contains several interesting anecdotes about how crowd-based innovation competitions can yield many great ideas about experimental directions, solutions to problems that are superior to the status quo, and how one Dana-Farber researcher managed to swing a crowdsourced idea into funding for the project.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Converting Philanthopists Into Investors

At The Cross-Border Biotech Blog, Wayne Schnarr asks:
High net-worth individuals and families – In my previous blog, I wondered how these people became healthcare angels. These are not the individuals who donate $5 million or more and have their name placed on a building – those are philanthropists. 
and more importantly:
Can philanthropists be turned into investors? Do the philanthropists know that if their donation results in a discovery with commercial potential, it may die because of the lack of early stage funding?
The remainder of his post outlines many financial hurdles facing new healthcare related companies, as well as a few possible solutions.  But the idea of converting philanthropists, who are happy to let go of their money, into investors, who will help the recipient of those funds hit larger goals, is a worthy one to dig deep into.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Johnson and Johnson's Big Red Doors Open Up To Opportunities

In case you haven't heard, Johnson & Johnson has opened up a new Innovation Center in Boston:
Johnson & Johnson announced the opening of the Johnson & Johnson Innovation center in Boston, the third of four regional hubs being established in the world's leading life science hotspots.
The other three are in California, Shanghai, and London.  The Boston center is led by Robert Urban, formerly of the Koch Institute and an entrepreneur/executive before that.  Scott Kirsner, at the Boston Globe, interviewed Urban, who has this to say about Johnson and Johnson's presence in these major cities:  
"What we really hope to do is try to simplify for the outside world how you might try to interact with J&J," Urban told me this morning. "We have 250 businesses spread across the world. With these innovation centers in Boston, Menlo Park, London, and Shanghai, we're creating four red doors" — red, of course, being J&J's corporate hue — "that innovators can walk through to help them figure out who to work with here." The Boston Innovation Center will be staffed with technical experts in areas like neuroscience, oncology, and vaccines who can evaluate prospective partnerships; a team to craft contracts and then manage those partnerships; and also investors from J&J's corporate venture capital arm. 
The stimulus behind these kind of moves isn't just about critical mass; Massachusetts has the numbers to support these kind of big research initiatives.  More importantly there's political understanding of the importance for industrial biotech research clusters:
"In Massachusetts we invest in the life sciences because we are choosing to shape our own future," said Governor Deval Patrick. "I welcome the Johnson & Johnson Innovation center to our life sciences supercluster and look forward to the jobs and economic opportunities that their new collaborations will bring."
Political leaders cheerleading Ontario's life science industry should take note.

So while Johnson & Johnson claims that the local biopharma industry around Boston employs 49,000 people across about 500 companies, the Ontario site tallies the province's numbers as about 40,000 people in 900 companies, though across all life sciences rather than being specific to biopharma as Johnson and Johnson is getting at.  The numbers aren't as concentrated as Boston or California, but they're getting there.

Ontario already has presence for a few big pharmaceutical players - GE Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Roche, and Teva - so although it might take a few more years, but a big red door as Urban describes should appear in Ontario.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wikipedia Article Views Predict Stock Market Falls

Here's a very simple, yet intriguing, study on the relationship between Wikipedia page views and stock market returns:
In our analysis, we find evidence of increases in the number of page views of articles relating to companies or other financial topics before stock market falls.
We propose one potential explanation in line with these results. We first suggest that Wikipedia records may provide a proxy measurement of the information gathering process of a subset of investors for the investigated period. We further note that previous studies in behavioural economics have demonstrated that humans are loss averse: that is, they are more concerned about losing £5 than they are about missing an opportunity to gain £5. By this logic, it could be argued that the trading decision of greatest consequence for a trader would be to sell a stock at a lower price than they had previously believed it was worth. If we assume that investors may be willing to invest more efforts in information gathering before making a decision which they view to be of greater consequence, then it would follow that increases in information gathering would precede falls in stock market prices, in line with our results.
The work was led by Tobias Preis, who has a ton of awesome content and research presentations if finance is your area of interest (his website is a little outdated). 

My only question is 'Where's the website for this work?'

Thanks, Gareth!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Being An Expert Can Stifle Creativity, Innovation, Inventiveness

Mitchell Osak, of Quanta Consulting Inc., writes about innovation block at the Financial Post:
Conventional wisdom says that possessing deep subject matter expertise is a prerequisite for organizations looking to innovate. Yet, when product managers, technologists or innovation gatekeepers have too much knowledge their preconceived notions or experiences can prevent breakthrough solutions from emerging.
This common psychological state – we call it the ‘curse of expertise’ – is considered by psychologists and behavioral economists to be a harmful cognitive bias, preventing some individuals and teams from finding and implementing ‘out of the box’ innovations. 
Every scientist experiences this at some point. Fortunately, Osak offers a few tips for surmounting this blocking effect, with one ideally suited to research teams:
Find the right data.  Innovative thinking often gets kiboshed by experts based on their – nebulous, out-of-date, or unverified – opinions. Indeed, gut feel has an important place in decision-making. Highly innovative companies, however, emphasize the primacy of holistic and credible data, especially that from consumers, over opinion.  Two effective ways of getting good data is through undertaking proper qualitative and quantitative research, and conducting ‘quick and dirty,’ measurable experiments.
To add to that, remember that small experiments with good experimental design are much more useful than huge ones with little or no structure.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New Tools To Match Patients With Clinical Trials

Alisa Opar writes this at Nature:
According to US government estimates, only about 3% of patients with advanced cancer enroll in phase 1 trials. Part of the problem, experts believe, comes down to a lack of awareness: the general public doesn't know about investigational trials, and few physicians discuss the option with their patients.New tools unveiled this year that automatically prescreen patients for trials based on their electronic medical records and email matches to doctors could help solve the problem. 
The US federal registry, ClinicalTrials.gov, currently lists more than 145,000 trials in all 50 states, as well as 184 foreign countries. Wading through those listings is a daunting task for individuals interested in signing up for a study, assuming that they know of the resource to begin with.  
ClinicalTrials.gov is a great resource, but to say that wading through the listings is a daunting task is an understatement. 

Searching through clinical trials for something of interest is a hard job even for people with PhDs, who are aware of cancer biology, who already know something of the rationale behind a clinical trial, and who actually get paid to work on projects related to the clinical trials.  I can't begin to relate to how sifting through trial listings must feel for everyone else, especially people under the time-pressure of advancing cancer.

Having a system that connects people with trials is a great stride forward.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Buoys Become Self-Powered Using The Least Likely Part To Generate Power

Scientific American has a short note about a patent granted for power-generating buoys:
Patent no. 8,274,167 describes a buoy that generates its own power. The floating section of the buoy is connected to a long cable anchored to the ocean floor or a weight. The cable has a core made of piezoelectric lead zirconate titanate, a chemical compound first synthesized at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. As currents flow around the cable, microeddies move it like the “strumming of a guitar string,” Hughes says. The power generated depends on the cable's length and tension, but it theoretically could be enough to power a sonar array. 
A very nice example of thinking outside the box and putting the most important piece of technology (the power generating component) into the part that's most likely an afterthought: the cable keeping the buoy in place.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

George Daley Explains How "Differentiated" iPS Cells Aren't Differentiated Enough

Signals just published my summary of a lecture given by George Daley, of Children's Hospital Boston, during one of his recent visits to the University of Toronto.

In his fact-filled yet congenial talk, he managed to convey a key message: that many techniques currently used to differentiate, or convert, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) don't perform as well as people assume.  From Signals:
Daley showed that pathway activation and deactivation can be monitored in differentiation experiments converting mouse embryonic fibroblasts to induced hepatocytes (iHeps), and that the cells, previously considered to be terminally differentiated hepatocytes, expressed posterior gut genes like Cdx2.

Exploiting this data, the group was able to repeat the differentiation experiment and showed that additional inhibition of activity within the Cdx2 signalling module produced improved iHep performance in terms of albumin and urea production.
So through this example he managed to convince many that though making new liver cells from iPS cells that look and act like liver is currently possible, there's always room for a little improvement. And in biology, that last little quantum of function might make a giant difference in terms of real world performance.

Check out more of the summary at Signals, here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Metabolomics On The Rise

Gail Dutton writes:
Applications extend beyond biotech to include such novel markets for metabolomics as biofuels, nutrigenomics, agriculture, and food safety. The greatest opportunities, however, are in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics.
And quotes Marianna Tcherpakov at BCC Research:
“Like other omics, a metabolomics approach has big impacts in research and product development, especially in the area of biomarker and drug discovery applications,” Dr. Tcherpakov elaborates.“With advancements in genomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic data collection and analysis, it seems logical for a metabolomics discovery study to consider adding results from those whenever possible.”
Getting information on the levels of intermediate compounds within cells is one of the key advantages of metabolomics, which like genomics, represents another very valuable way of getting another swath of data on the subject of research.  Here's the big limitation, according to Anthony Walker:
The two greatest limitations to the growth of metabolomics ... are bioinformatics and research funding. “There aren’t enough trained bioinformaticians available"
And like genomics, if metabolomic data is going to be used in new ways, a lot of data wrangling will be needed before metabolomics becomes mainstream.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How To Contract Out Academic Research

The average academic research project typically doesn't scale up to the point that outsourcing work is worthwhile, but Lane et al. argue at that there are plenty of cases where academic groups can make use of a CRO, or Contract Research Organization:
The full range of different kinds of expertise involved is not always available or executed optimally within [academic] organizations, a network of contract research organizations (CROs) is typically needed to supplement in-house expertise. For many years, large pharmaceutical companies have extensively employed CROs to complement their internal programmes and capabilities, and have established approaches to optimize their use, such as preferred vendor networks and measures for evaluating, contracting and managing CROs. However, such approaches are less established in academia or early-stage companies. Here, with the aim of helping to address this issue, we provide recommendations for effective interaction with CROs in early-stage drug R&D.
The remainder of the article breaks down most of the following considerations for partnering with a CRO:
The decision to outsource to a CRO should be driven by factors that include: the need for expert guidance in drug discovery science; technical expertise beyond in-house capabilities; key platform technologies; lack of development experience; time and cost efficiency; and the regulatory requirement for good laboratory practice (GLP) and good manufacturing practice (GMP).
Those are all fairly routine items to consider, even for an in-house research program.

But here's one sentence that struck me in the section about negotiating data handling and communication:
In some cases, the opportunity for individuals within a CRO to be co-authors might be of value in cost negotiations.
Which means that the monetary value of being an author on a paper is quantifiable.

Now it's well known that academic salaries are lower that those in industry, but the differential has been blamed on various causes like a glut of PhDs, lack of market demand for academic research skills, the chance to work on something 'cool', etc.  But the main point of the differential, at least for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, is that you get to a) learn or sharpen a whole set of skills, and b) be an author of publications.

Now if the value of being an author on a paper can be accounted for, it might go a long way towards justifying why academic salaries are what they are.

That being said, the value of that paper is probably going to be something between 'that's a cute paper' and 'groundbreaking'.