SciTech Now Epsiode 407

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look into a scientific collaboration between medicine and geoscience; a company growing animal-free leather; a new program for veterans suffering from PTSD; and an academy brings STEM to students.


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Coming up... an unlikely scientific collaboration.

We're taking doctors and geologists and we're creating a new field called medical geology.

Engineering animal-free leather.

We call it biofabrication.

We're able to use biology as, essentially, a factory.

New programs for post-traumatic stress.

Get you out there, get you active, too, and meeting with other vets and having things in common really helps.

Texas puts the 'T' in 'STEM.'

We're going to start implementing more technology, and we're going to have to change some of our classrooms from traditional-style classrooms into something that's much more interactive.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now', our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Scientific research can make strange bedfellows.

In treating veterans with respiratory problems, one doctor sought help from an unlikely collaborator -- a geoscientist who studies meteorites.

Here's the story.

U.S. Army veteran Specialist E4 Jonathan Ray Molina says he has a hard time doing the activities he once loved.

He experiences respiratory issues from serving in Iraq back in 2007.

A lot of friends, you know, have had the same issues, but nobody can ever really get a solid answer as to what really caused it.

In search of those answers, Molina traveled from his home in Texas to Long Island, New York, to see Dr. Anthony Szema, an allergy, immunology, and pulmonary disease specialist affiliated with Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and Stony Brook University.

Szema has been treating veterans for 20 years.

Over a decade ago, he noticed that some soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were experiencing breathing problems.

In 2004, we realized that at a VA hospital where most of the patients usually were 80-year-old men in wheelchairs, there were young women and men of all ethnicities, in uniform, who were 20, 30 years old who showed up saying that they were short of breath.

In fact, the index case for me was that there was an all-state football player from Garden City who had never had asthma or exercise problems, was in perfect shape, and he noticed he was symptomatic, and all he said -- 'Get me back.

I want to go back to the fight.'

Szema suspected that dust particles from the air or particulate matter found in their lung tissue could possibly be causing their problems.

He teamed up with an unlikely partner -- a geologist at Stony Brook University, Timothy Glotch -- to get a closer look at the problem.

I'm always looking for projects that are kind of outside of my comfort zone, and this certainly qualifies, you know, for that.

And, you know, I'm happy to be working on a project that could have some kind of real-world implications for heroes.

This is a novel field.

This is a brand-new field.

We're taking doctors and geologists and we're creating a new field called medical geology or medical geosciences.

Szema says there could be a handful of reasons veterans are experiencing these lung problems.

The climates in Iraq and Afghanistan are harsh.

Dust storms kick up loose sand and other sharp particles, which can cause lung scarring if inhaled.

Then there's damage from the war itself, like blasts from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that project smoke and debris.

Another cause of these breathing problems could be the unknown long-term impact of burn pits.

It's just a, you know, big hole in the ground that's covered with medical waste, lithium batteries, car batteries, like, Humvee tires.

All reduced to ash and smoke.

Some were located near military living quarters.

An initial study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine concluded that there's only limited evidence suggesting a connection between pulmonary problems and burn pits.

Szema says research linking burn pits to health issues could help inform veteran healthcare moving forward.

To find that link, he looked beyond medicine, into the field of geoscience.

His question -- What makes up the particulate matter found in these veterans' lung tissue?

'Oh, I actually have an instrument that might be helpful.'

You know, we can look at really small things, we can get the mineralogy, we can tell you not just what metal is in there, but what species of metal is in.

This particular instrument is also really good at looking at organic molecules and organic contaminants.

Glotch works with a Raman spectrometer, a machine he usually uses to examine meteorites and chunks of rock.

The spectrometer uses a laser to identify a material's chemical fingerprint.

He saw no reason why he couldn't examine lung tissue with the device.

The Raman spectrometer could tell him whether the particles in the lungs had been burned and if the chemical change that occurred from that burning had created a substance that was harmful to humans.

And so, we can identify certain molecules called PAHs -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- that can be carcinogenic, and what Dr. Szema especially wanted to know was, are there PAHs associated with dust grains or not?

And that's what we're trying to figure out.

In order to work together, Szema and Glotch first had to develop a common language and set of protocols.

I don't know anything about geology or geochemistry, and they don't know that much about medicine, so we have to learn from each other.

[ Laughs ]

We had no idea what we were looking at, you know, so these are slices of lung with little bits of dust in them, and we're used to looking at rocks that are cut and polished and put on a slide, and then we look under there.

So we had a really hard time interpreting even what we were supposed to be looking for.

And he actually had a pathologist actually draw on some of the slides with little marker dots, say, 'Oh, this is where you can see a little piece of dust, this is where you can see a little piece of dust', and so that actually helped us pinpoint what we were looking at.

And so, what we needed to, you know, learn kind of on the geosciences side was, yeah, not everything looks like what we're used to seeing, which makes sense, right?

And so, we kind of take our tools that we use to, you know, study those types of samples and just apply them to this new problem.

It's a work in progress, and if Glotch and Szema can identify the causes of lung issues affecting veterans using the Raman spectrometer and pinpoint any long-term concerns, they may give veterans and others long-sought-after answers.

If you were able to figure out what was making you sick, specifically, what would that mean for you?

That would mean the world for me, honestly.

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From the massive amounts of land it takes to raise a global herd of animals to the water supply used and the greenhouse gases released during the process, the production of animal products, like leather, is resource-intensive.

Joining me now is Andras Forgacs, co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, a company that's come up with an alternative by growing animal-free leather in a lab.

That just sounds impossible to do, because leather is animal skin, right?

So how are you growing the skin in a lab?

Thanks, Hari.

Good to be here.

I mean, if you think about it, leather is really just made up of a protein, collagen.

And what we figured out is we figured out a way to make that protein, collagen, without animals and then to organize it to re-create some of the higher-order structure of leather as a material.

So, our process -- we call it biofabrication -- we're able to use biology as, essentially, a factory to create our products, and as a result, we don't have to raise, slaughter, and transport animals.

Does it feel any different?

Well, I brought some samples.


It's not meant to be a perfect imitation of leather.

It's made up of the same building blocks.

So, leather is, essentially, made up of just collagen, as I mentioned.

And this is made up of collagen, but because we make it ourselves from the ground up, we can actually control its properties, so we can make material that's thicker and stronger, so this is an example of something that's thicker.

We can also make it have different aesthetics, different color.

Oh, wow.

We can actually make it have a completely different aesthetic or roughness, and we can make materials that have completely different or new, if you will, physical properties, new aesthetic properties, and, frankly, new functionality.

It would take how long to get -- I don't know -- let's say a square meter of leather the old-fashioned way versus what you can do in a lab?

It's a really good question.

I mean, traditional leather, it takes about two to three years to raise an animal in the field, and then you have to transport that animal to slaughter, usually hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

You remove the hide from the animal, then you have to remove the hair, the flesh, and the fat from that hide.

And then, typically, those hides are transported halfway around the world to tanneries where most tanneries operate -- either in Asia or in Latin America -- and then many more steps of chemistry are applied.

And at the end of that process, about 30 to 50% of the material is often wasted, if not more, because of irregular shapes and sizes of the hides or scars and insect bites -- you know, all the imperfections in the material.

By contrast, our process takes less than two weeks, and the beauty of it is that you can actually localize production, so we can produce the collagen at great efficient scale in production facilities around the world, and then we can transport that collagen to where we would convert it into our materials right next to where you'd want to use the materials and products, where you'd want to make the shoes, the bags, the furniture.

Where does this stack up -- you know, 'genuine' leather versus synthetic leather?

Is this a different type of synthesis because it's biological?

Yeah, it's a good question.

So, there's a lot of beauty in traditional leather, and there's a lot of great performance advantages in synthetic materials.

This is a third category.

It's biofabricated.

It's really the best of what we can get from nature enhanced with the ingenuity and creativity of what mankind can do.

So, unlike naturally derived materials that are harvested or mined or farmed, and unlike synthetic materials that are made from petrochemicals and that have usually an unfavorable environmental footprint, this has the best of both worlds.

You had a background that included biofabricating body parts.

[ Chuckles ] Is there something that you learned from that process that you were able to figure out and make this more efficient?

That's what gave us the confidence to even pursue this as an idea.

So, the first biotech company, that I co-founded 3D-printed human tissue for medical research and eventually medical therapy.

And we figured if we can grow little human livers and kidneys that can be used by pharmaceutical companies to test and develop new drugs, if we can grow tissue models -- sorry, skin models that can be used by cosmetic companies to develop their products, then how could that kind of technology be used potentially beyond medicine?

And that was the seed that led to the idea behind Modern Meadow.

We've moved far away from the kind of technology that's practiced to do that.

So this is a different technology, but it does fall under that broad umbrella of biofabrication.

When are we going to see this on a store shelf?

What's the next step?

Well, we're excited to be in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit on fashion.

That's going on this fall, and that's where we're showing our first prototype product, and that's a very exciting step for us.

And then, within the coming year or so, we're going to be showing up with our partner brands.

So, let's say I go to a store next summer.

Is there going to be a distinct difference?

I mean, are you going to be selling me the idea that you can have the benefits of leather without any of the ethical costs and dilemmas?

It has to have a benefit that's tangible and perceptible to the consumer, so the product has to be better in some way relating to design, performance, or functionality.

And it has to be ethically superior, so what motivates us as a company is to make products that are better in a better way, right -- that have benefits for the consumer and the planet.

But if the benefit is just for the planet, it's necessary but not sufficient, in our opinion.

So, is there something -- are there things that a designer or a manufacturer can do with this leather that they couldn't do very easily with leather that we're used to?


The way we even can construct with this material allows us to do things that you couldn't do with traditional leather.

We're not constrained by size or shape.

We can also control its physical properties in a way that goes beyond what traditional leather can do.

We can make materials that are thinner or thicker.

We can make materials that have different physical properties in terms of elasticity or strength.

You're describing the stuff of superhero suits.

You realize that, right?


[ Laughs ]

The design possibilities and the innovation possibilities here are, frankly, endless.

And that's actually one of the challenges.

Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much, Hari.

Great to be here.

New programs for post-traumatic stress, or PTS, have been developed over the past few years.

In this next segment, we visit a sailing camp and other alternative programs that work with U.S. veterans who suffer from PTS and traumatic brain injury.

Here's the story.

We have a term, post-traumatic stress, that's well-known across the United States, and we've attached that to our veteran population.

Brian Anderson is the founder of the Veterans Alternative Center in Holiday, Florida.

Here, veterans are given an opportunity to deal with the trauma they've brought back with them from war.

Post-traumatic growth takes a point in time -- that same traumatic incident someone might have gone through -- and it looks at the growth factor for that person, how they can actually utilize that experience that they've gone through and use that to propel them and their life afterwards to help others out.

Veterans are introduced to a variety of activities to help re-establish themselves back home.

Post-traumatic growth is really focusing on life after war, focusing on purpose, direction, and motivation for each one of our men and women who are coming home and helping them re-establish themselves inside the civilian world.

The camaraderie is definitely one major piece.

The physical fitness -- nostalgic, as well.

And then we bring in other pieces to help them overcome some of the hypervigilance that they might face after coming home from war -- some of the yoga that we do to help calm the breathing and martial arts to kind of help a warrior really stay intact with that primal instinct that they've unlocked, but to utilize it in a healthy way so that they can become great leaders and responsible citizens in life after war.

The Warrior Sailing Program is another organization aimed at helping veterans returning home from the battlefield.

The main goal of the Warrior Sailing program is to introduce wounded servicemembers and give them opportunities in sailing, and we put on three-day basic-training camps all around the country.

Although these veterans are learning sailing, the program has tremendous therapeutic value.

The major part of the therapy that we provide is almost disguised in the sport.

The sport itself of sailing is teamwork, working in small groups.

You have to communicate with each other, but there's also the competitive side.

Shernea is a military veteran with PTSD.

She looks for ways to help alleviate her symptoms.

Depression is the biggest thing and anxiety and having to deal with a lot of people and crowds.

She came to the sailing camp held in St. Petersburg, Florida, not knowing what to expect.

People think that when you go sailing that you're just on a boat and you're riding, but when you're doing the sails and you're at the helm and all that, it's a lot of work.

And the hard work has paid off.

Shernea recognizes the benefits of sailing into a new future.

Personally, it's been really good because it gets me out of my shell -- gets you out there, gets you active, too.

And meeting with other vets and having things in common really helps.


Jamel was wounded in Afghanistan.

Both his physical and mental injuries have changed his life.

My biggest issue was getting along with others, I guess, after my injuries from Afghanistan.

I was shot a couple times.

I got shot in my chest, in my leg, in my arm.

Being able to come out here is a big, big challenge for me -- just being able to get on a boat and keeping my balance.

The challenges of taking orders, working as a team, and performing as a sailor has enabled Jamel to overcome.

Simple commands, simple fluctuation in people's voices kind of challenges me, but I realize that this isn't a combat setting, and for me, it benefits me just simply because I know we're all in it together.

I'm not doing this myself anymore.

I'm not struggling by myself.

I think this program benefits all veterans, simply because it kind of gets them away from the combat mentality, and just simple sailing -- enjoying life, listening to the ocean, listening to the airplanes, birds, and talking to other veterans, struggling just like you.

We're just here to provide that little bit of a push and little bit of activity beyond other traditional kinds of therapy.

Another veterans support organization takes warriors on trips requiring physical and mental toughness.

The Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge takes participants on mountain-climbing expeditions, as well as underwater adventures.

Anywhere from probably 60 to 70% overall of our veterans are actually folks that did suffer from some level of PTS or traumatic brain injury.

This organization has stepped up to do more for those suffering from PTSD.

There's a huge need in both PTS and TBI -- both to research what therapies work and then measure those.

Now, most of the veterans that we take on our challenges, they have mild to medium PTS, I would say.

But they still are looking for maybe a purpose.

One of those looking for a purpose is Rocky.

I spent more than half of my career in the United States Army Special Operations Command.

We operate in a 12-man element, and we lost four guys, so that's one-third of our force.

After serving his country, Rocky returned home, along with his traumatic memories.

Post-traumatic stress manifests itself with me as being, you know, through anger.

I almost lost my family, and a few friends, I did actually lose.

You know, it's tough.

My Care Coalition advocate called me up and said, 'Hey, I've got this trip up in Alaska to go out on a trek.

Is it something you'd be interested in?

I was like, 'Wow.

You must have read my mind.'

With the challenge behind it, with your teammates pushing you, everybody thrives off of each other.

If nothing more, it puts you in a place where you were before your traumatic event, and you feel whole again.

Whether finding camaraderie at a backyard barbecue, working as part of a team on a sailboat, or climbing high upon a mountaintop, veterans, their families, and support organizations are working together to help fight the devastation of post-traumatic stress.

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Texas is investing in STEM across the state.

Up next, we go inside Wagner High School in San Antonio, Texas, one of more than 100 STEM academies collaborating to bring science, technology, engineering, and math to students.

Here's the story.

Well, we recently received from TEA a designation -- the designation for STEM, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

It's a difficult one to get, and we have aligned the process from sixth grade through 12th grade.

So, we have currently in Judson ISD JSTEM.

Within the JSTEM program, the students will come up with many prerequisites to be successful in high school.

So, that's going to be one of the first major changes.

Traditionally, our students who have come into this program, they've started out taking courses in the middle school, but not as many courses in advanced mathematics and advanced sciences as the JSTEM students will have, so as we prepare for those students coming into the program, we're going to start implementing more technology, and we're going to have to change some of our classrooms from traditional-style classrooms into something that's much more interactive for students so that they'll enjoy those experiences, but also so that they're conducive to hands-on learning.

One of the things that we've been involved in for several years is the engineering piece, and that's something that we're going to continue to focus on.

It's been a traditional focus, and we'll continue moving on.

We have teachers who focus on the beginning process of building.

Then we have teachers who also focus on the actual building of the project and focusing on project-based learning, so it's going to naturally change the nature of some of the outcomes, the learning outcomes, and, eventually, the students' ability to go into post-secondary education, through some strong partnerships with local universities.

So we're looking forward to having the STEM designation, keeping the STEM designation, and working with the cohort of students each year.

I'm real excited about it.

I think this is going to open up a lot of doors for everybody, including the school and the community and the colleges.

Those who are really interested in this venue -- for them to learn things and experience things that they may not have been able to experience based on life barriers -- finances, location, availability of resources -- we want to remove those barriers through these partnerships and be able to really get a whole experience of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics firsthand.

We definitely let them know that there is definitely a market out there for them.

You know, if they can make it through and persevere and get through the challenges that face them, then they can be very successful.

We have a large Hispanic population, we have a large African-American population of students.

Those are typically the ethnicities that don't enroll in the STEM-related fields or don't necessarily get employed in the STEM-related fields, either, based on not seeking those post-secondary opportunities.

But we seek to kind of challenge that.

We want the undeserved and those who are underrepresented within the STEM community to be able to come from our school -- students who grew up in the same hardworking community where we work and where they live.

And so by providing those opportunities, we definitely know it'll have an immediate impact within the community that surrounds Wagner High School, and hopefully, that'll branch out and lead into further and further successes for the students who come through the program.

So, the first group of students coming through are really blazing a trail that they don't realize is going to have a tremendous and powerful impact on all the students coming after them.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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