Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Science-Fiction Becomes Reality

Few stories can touch you like that of a medical feat such as this – the world’s first laboratory grown bladder. Reading back over some of my previous posts, I noticed the term `incredible’ has often been used to describe my technological encounters and this story warrants yet another dose of the superlative. Seeing organs grown right before your eyes is mind-blowing, especially when you consider the implications of this medical triumph and its capacity to change lives. As of January this year, the organ transplant waiting list in Australia totalled 1716 and almost 54 times that in the United States at 91 568. Reducing those figures with organs grown from the patient’s own cells is revolutionary.

The concept evokes a strong sense of familiarity. As a recurring theme in science-fiction films such as `The Island’ (2005), a remake of the 1976 classic `Logan’s Run’, it almost seems surreal. But the science of tissue engineering is not new. It was coined back in 1986 when Dr Joseph Vacanti proposed a scaffold made out of bio-absorbable material as a means of growing a three-dimensional organ. The cells could be seeded along the model or scaffold, where they'd continue to grow and develop into a fully functioning organ. This was the process used by Dr Anthony Atala in his development of the first successful laboratory-grown bladder at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.

Although extremely complex, the procedure actually sounds quite simple in theory. First, a small biopsy is taken from the patient’s organ. In the lab, growth factors are added to enable the cells to multiply outside the body. This nutrient rich solution is placed in a bioreactor, a device that replicates the homeostatic environment of a human being required for cell growth. While it can take years to develop and perfect these growth factors, the correct solution is powerful enough to cause a group of cells about one centimetre in size to multiply to fill a football field in about 60 days. The multiplied cells are seeded onto a collagen scaffold and returned to the bioreactor, where they continue to grow. Finally, about 7-8 weeks after the biopsy, the model is implanted into the body where it eventually degrades as the new organ or tissue integrates with the body.

The procedure overcomes the two major risks associated with previous treatment options. Firstly, the engineered bladders are grown from the patient’s own cells so there is no risk of rejection as is the case for organ donor recipients. An alternative treatment is to repair the non-functioning bladder tissue with tissue from the intestines, however this may lead to problems such as osteoporosis, kidney stone formation, and increased risk of cancer. This is because the intestine is designed to absorb nutrients, whereas the bladder is designed to excrete. Testing showed that the engineered bladders functioned as well as bladders that are repaired with intestine tissue, but with none of the ill effects.

Dr Atala is currently working to grow 20 different tissues and organs and believes that tissue engineers could one day grow a human heart. While the science needs further study before it can be widely used, additional clinical trials of the bladders are scheduled to begin later this year. Scientists hope that laboratory-grown organs could one day help solve the shortage of donated organs available for transplantation. After sharing in the passion and skill of these amazing scientists, I believe it’s only a matter of time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Woman vs Robot

I spent a lot of time with robots on my second trip filming overseas. Last week you met Madeleine, the swimming tetrapod. A while back in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, an incredible mine mapping robot escorted me 30 feet underground. And this week I battled it out with FA1 – the world’s first Fighting Android. As I’m sure you can imagine, it was a lot of fun albeit exhausting.

Our location was Virginia Beach, the fourth largest suburban city in North America. Best known for its oceanfront and resorts, the place was certainly in party-mode when we arrived in early May. It felt like one big frat party and there was no shortage of scantily clad guys and girls flaunting their fabulousness. Perhaps they would have been keen to go a few rounds with my new pal. If my tender gluteals were anything to go by, a few sparring sessions with the FA1 could definitely assist in the toning department.

More than just a punching bag, the Fighting Android also provides a fun fitness alternative for gym junkies. Its main aim however, is to reduce the risk of injury during boxing and martial arts training sessions. Simulating the movements of a human, FA1 embodies a life-like electromechanical device that moves backwards and forward, rotates, and dodges to the left and right. The device can throw an array of punches towards the fighter with either hand, including a straight punch, single or double jab, upper cut, right or left cross, hook, and various combinations of these. It typically throws these punches towards the head, torso or arm regions of the fighter. Alternatively, it can assume a defensive posture or throw a counter punching sequence towards the fighter. It may look a little unusual and stilted, but it feels incredibly realistic and puts up one heck of a challenge.

Its inventor, Luther Trawick, has spent the last 15 years trying to perfect his creation. Apparently the greatest challenge was simulating the twisting torso motion of a boxer – a problem he overcame using various devices, actuators (motors), and dummy limbs acquired from his local junkyard. Amazingly, one of the key advances in his years of tinkering was the discovery of windscreen wiper motors, which he used in replicating the side-to-side movements of a human (left to right). An impressive optional feature of the robot is the addition of impact recording sensors, which are placed at strategic locations (such as the face, chest, arms, and ribcage) and used to award points. Various point values are assigned for hitting different regions and the amount of force delivered by a punch. That information is fed into an added circuit and tallied on the computer screen to inform programming sequences and speed.

In terms of safety, the android is fully padded from head to toe as a means of protecting the fighter and itself from injury and damage. The fist is also contact sensitive and if too much force or resistance is applied, it retracts mechanically and electronically. This is the only feature I was unwilling to test myself, but there were a few close shaves and I have to admit it was a little unnerving. Although Luther assured me the punch would be minimal, I decided instead to push my dodging and punching skills to the limit. Twelve hours and many a sore muscle later, the round was over. In one corner, the Fighting Android stood defiant and indestructible. In the other, a body of jelly with only two things on her mind – a succulent steak and a good nights sleep. Both went down a treat.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Good Life

It's only my third posting and food once again dominates. No doubt most of you shared my excitement at the recent discovery of a chocolate that is actually good for your heart. Not so much a discovery but the culmination of fifteen years of research. Time very well spent. This story was always going to be a favourite, combining two undeniably alluring topics - chocolate and Brazil. The first of two stories filmed in one hectic Brazilian week (the other story on Brazil's alternative fuel aired a few weeks ago), it was based at the Mars Cocoa Bean Research Farm in Ilheus, a major city located in the southern coastal region of Bahia (430 km south of Salvador).

While incredible, it was actually one of the most physically tiring shoots due to an unfortunate run of delayed flights that left us with no more than one hours sleep prior to arriving and heading straight out to film. We missed our connecting flight from Sao Paulo to Ilheus (because our initial flight from Miami to Sao Paulo was delayed). Then on arrival into Sao Paulo at 11pm, we learnt that the only flight to Ilheus was the following morning at 3:30am. So after one precious hour of sleep, we hurried to the airport only for our flight to be cancelled yet again. Delirium had well and truly set in by this stage and doubt was making a fierce debut. We were due to begin filming at 9am that day and there was no way our shoot could be rescheduled. Fortunately a 7am flight was soon confirmed. Unfortunately it was taking off from another airport across the other side of town and we didn't have long. So we unloaded our 21 bags of luggage and equipment from the carousel, divided them into five tiny cabs, and sped across Sao Paulo. My exhaustion gave way to adrenalin filled excitement as we zipped in and out of traffic, the sun making its first glowing appearance on the foggy horizon. What a way to start the day – whizzing through the city at sunrise with a driver who spoke no English but, on hearing me hum along to the radio, proudly whipped out his compilation of Beyonce and Black Eyed Peas hits for the ultimate sing-along session. It was such a buzz to be back in Brazil.

We greeted our chocolate research team at the airport and stopped briefly at our little beachside hotel to shower and change. Then it was a 45-minute trip inland to the cocoa fields, during which we received an intense lesson in chocolate production and the importance of flavanol preservation. Flavanol can be described as a health-promoting compound that occurs naturally in cocoa beans. Scientific studies suggest it could help to lower cholesterol, relax blood vessels, and ward off heart disease. In fact, a Professor at London's William Harvey Research Institute has applied for permission to trial the effects of dark chocolate (believed to contain high amounts of flavanol) on 40 patients with cardiovascular disease. While the exact mechanism of action underlying these effects is still unclear, there is strong evidence linking these physiological effects to an increase in the availability of nitric oxide – an important signalling molecule. Traditional methods of chocolate production destroy the beneficial flavanols. CocoaVia chocolate however (right), developed by Mars Nutrition for Health and Well Being (a new division of Mars), claims to be a heart-healthy snack that contains more than 100 milligrams of flavanols per bar.

In between bouts of rain, we managed to film several sequences at the cocoa farm including an interview with our chocolate expert, Professor Howard Shapiro. It makes the filming process so much easier when you have great talent (on-camera interviewees) and Howard certainly fit into this category. It can be difficult to condense and communicate such a wealth of knowledge and information often gathered over many years and sometimes a lifetime of work. Howard did it with ease and was also willing to let loose and have a bit of fun. He also proved to be a helpful technical addition to the team on our second day of filming, when we realised that we didn'’t yet have a wide shot of the research farm. It was so dense, like the Amazon Jungle I had visited 18 months earlier in the northwest of Brazil, and we needed to convey its magnitude in the story. Our only answer was an old water tower (above) positioned at the end of an ascending dirt track. It was quite scary climbing to the top, but luckily we had a few extra hands to carry equipment (thanks to Howard and our translator, Fernando). As you can see, Fernando was also recruited to help out with the fleckie (the silver or gold screen that reflects light into the shot). The 360-degree view from the top was breathtaking– dense shades and textures of green merged into distant mountains and a variety of birds could be seen and heard. Although we only filmed a few pieces to camera and scenic shots, it was a few hours before we eventually returned to the ground.

That night we celebrated a successful few days of filming (and surviving the water tower!) Howard invited us to the beautiful hilltop home of his close friend to enjoy a traditional Brazilian stew called Feijoada (meat with black beans) and Skol beer. It really hit the spot. From up in the hills, we could hear the loud cheers and music of locals celebrating a regional win in the soccer below. Once again I was reminded of what it is that makes Brazil so appealing - simple but satisfying fare, good beer (and capirinhas), and a zealous appetite for life.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Culinary Science

New York, New York… so good they named it twice – and twice this year I’ve had the pleasure of working in this incredible city. I only visited New York for the first time back in Christmas 2004 as part of a six-week trip overseas with one of my closest friends, Melissa. It was one leg of a rather arbitrary itinerary that took us from Paris to Berlin to New York and finally Brazil, where we spent New Years in Rio de Janeiro before visiting Foz do Iguacu, Salvador da Bahia, and Manaus (the gateway to the Amazon Jungle).

I usually carry a journal on longer trips because I have a terrible memory and like to remember moments as well as favourite restaurants and places to visit. I’ve just been flicking through the pages of my 04/05 Journal for the first time since returning 18 months ago and not surprisingly (considering my obsession with food), much of my writing revolves around culinary experiences. Whether at home or travelling, food certainly comprises a disproportionate slice of my weekly budget. My return trips to New York in February and May this year were no different, although working 14-hour days did limit us somewhat. Nonetheless on the eve of our one-day off a week, I did manage to lure the crew to Balthazar – one my favourite restaurants and the same place I’d celebrated my birthday a few months earlier. Roasted Halibut was followed by drinks at a nearby Irish Pub, where we met up with some of the lovely girls we’d been working with that week. Actually, we were quite spoilt in New York. Filming for several days at Olives, a top restaurant run by renowned Chef Todd English (above), certainly had its edible perks.

The Food Profiling story commenced in Cincinnati at the beginning of our trip, continued into New York, and eventually finished at the Sydney Fish Markets where the powder was put through its paces. Like film and television drama, our stories are very rarely shot chronologically and quite often pick-ups are required (additional filming to round out the story). Such was the case for this story – both the opener and closer were filmed at the Sydney Fish Markets on returning to Australia. Most of the technology was shot at the company headquarters of Givaudan where all of the science comes together. It was here that we met the team behind Givaudan’s TasteTrek program, which aims to discover and tap into unique aromas and flavours throughout the world using proprietary headspace technology. Amazingly, the headspace process and apparatus captures the aroma molecules of a particular dish or food and uses that information to recreate the flavour for the consumer market. The first Givaudan TasteTrek occurred in Madagascar back in 2003. The aim of the mission was to discover new flavours and tastes, and species of plant life from an exotic part of the world... and what better way to seek adventure and discovery than soaring above the Madagascan canopy on a blimp (photo courtesy of Givaudan). The team was successful - discovering, among other things, a new berry with flavours similar to blackberries. Other culinary TasteTreks have seen the Givaudan team travel to authentic food stalls and restaurants in Thailand, China, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, France and the US – but its collaboration with celebrity chef Todd English was a first.

In its partnership with Todd, Givaudan created a range of five signature flavours. We followed the process for one specific dish, Lobster Puttanesca – prepared by English at his New York restaurant, Olives. The very difficult task of sampling it revealed incredible flavours; lots of chilli, garlic, onion, capers, and truss tomatoes. Simple but strong Mediterranean flavours that were then extracted as aroma molecules. The headspace capture process for the Puttanesca dish took approximately 2-3 hours and new versions of the same dish were replenished every 20 minutes or so to keep the aromas fresh. So how does the technology work? The apparatus is basically a glass dome and the area inside of the dome is referred to as the headspace. Attached to its top are three glass tubes with specialised filters. At the end of each tube is a soft, pliable tube connected to a small vacuum pump that draws air out of the headspace dome and up through the filter, capturing the aroma molecules in a glass ampule. A solvent in the ampule helps capture the aroma molecules in the form of liquid droplets and that information is analysed in the laboratory and eventually converted into a seasoning powder.

It’s quite a crazy looking apparatus and the procedure really is extraordinary. Essentially, scientists are creating a unique molecular profile of the dish so that you and I can cook authentic restaurant meals without the hassle or high cost. So does it taste as good as the real thing? I was eager to find out, but it would be another eight weeks before the fate of a Sydney lobster was sealed in my hands. It was certainly easy enough and, apart from the lobster, reasonably cheap – olive oil, linguine, canned tomatoes, and of course the essential ingredient. On first tasting, it wasn’t quite there so we added a little more powder… and then a little more… and finally, just one more teaspoon (we only had the sample, which didn’t carry instructions). Bingo. Lobster Puttanesca à la Sara Groen. While it tasted the part and didn’t look too far off the original, I have to admit I did miss the actual textures and colours of the real deal. Of course you’re not going to be too worried about that when you’ve just finished a long day at work, beaten off contenders for the grocery store queue, and succumbed to road rage on the traffic laden trip home.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Attack of the Brazilian Bugs

There’s nothing like home when you’ve spent most of the year living out of a suitcase. I’m certainly not complaining of course – I love nothing more than arriving in a new city with endless possibilities for adventure, but I’m sure the experience is compounded by the re-discovery or appreciation of your own country when you finally do touch down. I returned from my last trip about 4 weeks ago. So far this year, I’ve been away for 92 days – two trips each spanning almost seven weeks. Apparently back in the Beyond 2000 days, the crew would travel for up to 13 weeks at a time… I can’t begin to fathom being without my bed for such a long time.

If you tune into Beyond Tomorrow (and I hope you do!), you obviously see the finished product… 7-8 stories of approximately 5-8 minutes in length. Like any TV show, it’s the culmination of many hours of brainstorming, meetings, research, filming, post and pre-production etc involving many different people. While I was involved in the research side of things, my main gig is on the road – the filming… and so these are the stories I’d like to share. What madness ensues when you send four people who’ve never really met let alone worked together (presenter, producer, camera, and sound) on a seven-week trip overseas (working 12-16 hours a day, six days a week) with the aim of producing around 14 stories… stories we strive to make and hope to be interesting, informative, and entertaining.

Well… after too many hours in the air and too little sleep, we arrived into Cincinnati – the first of many airports. I think the tally wrapped with a total of 14 flights in seven weeks (one week into my second trip, we’d already ventured into three states). That night we all decided to try out the local brew (and discovered what would be a staple throughout the journey… Ylang Ylang). Fortunately a few drinks helped shrug of the jetlag and send us all to sleep. Unfortunately we all suffered a little for it the next day, which led me to my first super cheesy pasta (the Americans love their cheese alright), which led me to feeling a little more poorly. As you can imagine, we all took it easy that day preparing for a big week of filming.

The following day we filmed the first segment of a two-part story that was to be finished in NY. Who would have thought that the aroma molecules of a dish contribute so significantly to its flavour? That’s exactly what headspace technology achieves – it captures the precise aroma molecules of a particular dish (in this case, Lobster Puttanesca as prepared by US celebrity Chef Todd English – there’s a pic of him in the images section) and uses that information to recreate the flavour in powder form. I’ll elaborate on that one later in the week.

Last week you would have seen a story on a product called Dyn-O-Gel, a powder substance that literally turns water into thick gel – the aim is to use it on hurricanes and ultimately reduce the severity of a storm… amazing stuff. It was actually developed from an incredibly basic but very flexible (in terms of its application) product called Dyn-O-Mat, a leak resistant mat originally used under cars to absorb oil. We filmed that story in two parts – the interviews and actual product were shot in a small town called Jupiter on the East coast of Florida (where I recall having one of the best steaks of the trip!) The opener and closer (basically the set-up and wrap-up) were filmed on famous South Beach in Miami, Florida – we had no problem recruiting extras for that piece. The place is full of transient partygoers plus a staple of flamboyant locals.

Considering it only comprised about 30 seconds of the final story, the opening piece to that story took hours to film! Firstly, there was plenty of noise for our sound recordist to deal with in the form of incessant heckling, planes, and revving motor engines. Then there was me. This was our first shoot on return to the States from Brazil, where we’d been filming for a week in the cocoa fields of Ilheus. It was here that some sort of Brazilian bug relentlessly attacked both the producer and myself, leaving some rather nasty bites that seemed to get worse in the following days. Consequently, on arrival back into the States I was prescribed some pretty intense drugs, which left me feeling quite spaced out! Couple that with an intense sun and you get a dopey presenter struggling to spit out a single piece to camera. Fortunately I managed to make some sense of things just as a massive storm moved in on us – quite appropriate considering the nature of the story. Hurricane season had just commenced and the rate at which the clear blue sky turned to thundering grey was incredible.

We attempted numerous show closers (the goodbye wrap-up at the end of the entire show) in the storm as well as an alternative opener. Ironically, the rushed alternative opener was the piece used in the final cut… so the hours we’d spent filming on the beach that morning were reduced even further to a couple of seconds of overlay. Wet and tired, we eventually called it a day. That night, I decided to give up on the prescription drugs and let the nature of the mystery bug bite take its course. Needless to say I slept very well!