SciTech Now Episode 421

In this episode of SciTech Now, meet a venomous snail hunter; take a look at how your medicine can be 3D printed; a scientist creating body parts using produce found in your kitchen; and the catastrophic coastal flooding in one North Carolina coastal town.


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Coming up, meet a venomous snail hunter.

I affectionately like to call my snails 'killer snails' because they're very, very lethal.

Printing your medicine.

It would be used to deliver things which are currently given by injection, for example, insulin.

Creating human ears out of apples.

Plants are primarily made of cellulose, it's the fibrous part of all plants, and it turns out that material can support the growth of human cells and tissues.

Catastrophic coastal flooding.

Our road floods when we have really strong northwest winds.

That makes it hard for us to work where we're at.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

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.

If you think snails are harmless and even delicious delicacies, you may be surprised by the cone snail.

These marine creatures are armed with deadly venom that can kill worms, fish, and, even in rare cases, people.

However, a biochemist found that compounds in their venom have the potential to provide novel treatments for a host of illnesses.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

My name is Mande Holford, and I'm a venomous snail hunter.

We work with these killer snails to investigate their venom and look for novel compounds that can be used to treat pain and cancer.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and I'm one of five kids, and my parents came from South America to New York and decided that this is where they're gonna try to make their life.

As a kid growing up in New York, we have a couple of places that are really special, and the American Museum of Natural History is one of those for me.

We would go to the Museum of Natural History and go on our adventure roaming through the halls.

Each hall was like a new adventure.

What I didn't understand as a child then was that that was science.

It has a special place in my heart to be a scientist.

Almost every natural history museum on the planet has a shell collection.

You can learn about biodiversity, you can learn about family trees of the snails, look at how venom has evolved over time.

The snails that we work with, they're not garden snails.

These are marine snails.

They're found in tropical marine environments all over the world.

In the whole family of the snails, there are upwards of, I would say, 20,000 species.

Not all snails are venomous, but some of the species of these snails are fatal to humans.

I affectionately like to call my snails 'killer snails' because they're very, very lethal.

You know?

Deadly, actually.

[ Laughs ] it's been tagged the cigarette cone because after you get envenomated, you basically have time to smoke a cigarette and then you're gonna drop dead.

My love for killer snails wasn't there originally.

As I was finishing my graduate program, there was a seminar from Toto Olivera -- I call him the godfather of snails.

He came, and he gave a talk, and he showed a video of a snail eating a fish, and I was completely, like, everyone in the audience, we were blown away.

It's like, 'How is this possible?'

The snail is hidden under the sand.

They have a siphon that sticks up.

The siphon is kind of like a nose.

It can smell if there's prey in the water, then the proboscis comes out, and it's kind of like a tongue, and on the tip of the tongue is a harpoon which is filled with venom.

And then when they harpoon the prey with the venom, their venom has things in them that will shut down everything, basically, in the prey -- blood sugar, locomotion.

The prey then instantly becomes paralyzed.

Its mouth, or rostrum, opens really wide, and it will then engulf a fish or a worm completely whole.

So, the venom arsenal that nature has developed has worked wonderfully for millions and millions and millions of years.

It's kind of been perfected.

Learning from nature is actually something we've been doing for a long time.

All cultures, ancient cultures, have traditionally used their natural environment to look for cures to things that ailed them.

And so what we've done now is we've gotten a little bit more strategic in how we learn from nature.

You have to be very careful when you collect the snails.

Usually you have scuba gloves on, and then you sometimes can use salad tongs.

Very high tech.

[ Laughs ] To pick them up, drop them in the bucket, drop them in a bag, and bring them back up to the surface.

After we've collected the snails, we will dissect out the venom gland to then figure out what are the components inside of the venom.

Venom is actually a cocktail.

I like to call it 'nature's deadliest cocktail.'

The venom of the snails that we work with, it's mostly proteins and peptides.

Peptides are small proteins.

Each snail can produce upwards of 200 different peptides in their venom arsenal.

But each peptides is very targeted.

They come in and they can block specific function of the prey.

Since the peptides found in venoms are very specific, very potent, those are sort of the ideal for the drug-discovery world.

But they're also giving us new pathways for treating old problems.

And what we have to do is figure out they work and where they work in the cell.

Once we have identified which peptide we want to work on, we create it in the lab.

The goal then is to identify the molecular target, the channel inside of the cell that they're working on.

For example, in the instance of chronic pain, there's this constant signal from one neuron to another.

Peptides will block the channel that's helping to perpetuate that signal.

♪♪ Cancer cells, like normal cells, they have these different channels on them that the peptides could target.

In cancer, tumor cells are proliferating, and there's a signal that's sort of gone crazy.

With a group here at Hunter College, we got very excited because we found a peptide, it's called TV1.

TV1 was hitting tumor cells at a higher degree than it was hitting normal cells.

And so we're trying to identify which channel in liver tumor cells are being inhibited with TV1.

The first drug from these snails, these killer snails, was Ziconotide.

The commercial name is Prialt.

It's found from Similar to how the venom peptides will target a tumor cell to shut down proliferation, it works in stopping chronic pain signal.

Currently, the way that most drug companies deal with pain is through the opioid receptor, and the big major side effect is addiction.

With Prialt, you don't have the side effect of addiction.

So, the snails showed us not only a new drug, but they showed us a new model for how to treat pain.

Prialt is wonderful, but it doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier.

You have to take a spinal tap which is a very painful and invasive way of doing it.

So, we're looking for ways in which we can try to deliver the Prialt drug without delivering it through a spinal tap.

We have, like, what we call a Trojan house strategy in which we are encapsulating the peptide inside of a nanocontainer and try to shuttle it across the blood-brain barrier and then releasing it.

What we're trying to do is learn from how the snails are giving us new drugs but also giving us new pathways and new models for looking at diseases and disorders, particularly around pain and cancer.

Snails are really fascinating because it's always, like, you know, the little package with the big surprise.

And the more you learn about nature, you find out that there are lots of twists.

[ Laughs ] And some of them are good and some of them are not so good, but this is a really, really surprising twist of nature that's possible when you study the venom.

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3D printing your medicine.

3D printing is poised to bring a new era of medication delivery to patients.

Vivek Gupta, an assistant professor of Industrial Pharmacy at St. John's University in Queens, New York, joins us to discuss how this will change the future of medicine.

So, what do we have in front of us?

What do we got here?

Thanks for having me on the show, Hari.

What we have in front of us is different types of tablets we have printed in-house in our lab at St. John's University.

The way 3D printing works is that you can basically print any kind of tablet, any kind of device, any kind of -- basically anything that you could use to deliver the medicine into the patient in-house.

What implications we are looking for this is a pharmacist in a pharmacy at any of the pharmacy in New York or wherever in the world would be able to print these medicines on demand if a patient requires a different dosage form or different form of the medicine that is not available commercially, that companies do not provide.

A very good example for that would be for elderly people, for elderly patients, for pediatric patients, or children, where a lot of the drugs, and it's a known fact, are not available in the strengths, in their dosage forms, in their design that they require to be able to deliver that medicine effectively.

So, you can choose to develop any of these dosage forms and basically print it for them.

So, this would be something, instead of basically waiting for the manufacturer to ship this specific type of pill to you, this could be printed either at the hospital or maybe even at the corner pharmacy?

This could be, yes.

The major advantage of this would be the word -- branch of pharmacy which is known as extemporaneous compounding.

In extemporaneous compounding, pharmacists -- I am a pharmacist as well -- we develop, we deliver, we create dosage forms which are otherwise not available commercially or which are available commercially, but the patient, let's say an elderly patient, or a kid, are not able to take that medicine.

What happens right now, the formulas for those dosage forms, for those tablets, those capsules, are given by companies, are developed by some of the scientists, and include a lot of different compounds, different chemicals, different polymers, which serve a lot of different functions.

With these dosage forms, we don't -- we bypass the need for all those different excipients, different compounds that serve different things, but based on the machine, based on physical property of the polymer we're using and the drug, we can modify how this particular tablet behaves when it goes inside the body.

So, a normal printer works on shooting ink onto paper.

This is essentially substituting ink with different chemicals that you want printed, right, in three dimensions instead of two.

So, wouldn't you need the underlying, sort of the drug that's in the drug, to be able to print those out?

So, would pharma companies give you those kind of ingredients?

So, right now, it's at a very nascent stage.

The kind of material we are using is commercially available.

All we're using is modern drugs that kind of mimic different types of drugs.

So, you could say we go by something known as biopharmaceutical classification system where we see if a drug is super soluble in water, if it doesn't dissolve in water, if it doesn't need a solution.

Based on that, we choose different types of polymers, and a lot of companies are developing these polymers which could be used for 3D printing.

The way you do it is you use a machine and equipment known as hot melt extruder in which, using an extruder, you can put the drug, whatever you want to use, into that polymer, create a filament that would look exactly like a typical PVA filament that you would run on a 3D printer, and you could print the tablet.

What are the economic consequences if this takes off?

Does it make drugs more accessible and less expensive?

I would say this would make drugs -- this would make the therapy more patient-compliant, and more patients would be willing to adhere to the therapy which they are provided, and over time, I don't know what -- It's really -- Like I said, it's really nascent.

There would be another four, five years where, before this actually becomes available, there would be chances that it could be used to deliver things which are currently given by injection, for example, insulin.

Insulin is the biggest -- When you talk about an injection and people having needle phobia, you think about insulin.

People who have diabetes, they don't want to poke themselves once a day, or God knows how many times a day.

This could be something that would help us create, because we are relieving, we are removing the need for those alien excipients in making a tablet, in making a capsule.

Who knows? We would be able to develop a dosage form where we could put insulin in the tablet and get away from needles.

That would be a milestone in achieving patient compliance.

So, how far away are we from seeing the idea of 3D printed pills out in the marketplace?

So, in terms of being able to do this in a corner pharmacy, probably a few years, maybe.

I would say five-ish years.


Vivek Gupta, Assistant Professor of Industrial Pharmacy at St. John's University, thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

A scientist in Canada has come up with a new way of creating body parts using produce found in your kitchen.

Andrew Pelling, professor and Canada Research chair at the University of Ottawa, joins us via Google Hangout to discuss his research.

All right, apples and ears.

I don't think of the two things in the same way, so what are we talking about here?

It's pretty obvious, isn't it?

[ Laughs ] Yeah, my lab, we were -- Do you know this movie 'Little Shop of Horrors'?


Yeah, so there's this plant that's eating people called Audrey II, and we were looking at that monster and thinking, 'This is kind of a cool biological entity,' 'cause it's part plant and part animal, 'cause it's got muscles and teeth and that sort of thing.

And we started wondering, 'Could we actually grow mammalian tissues into plants?'

And along the way, we discovered a new type of biomaterial that happens to have applications in reconstructive surgery.

What kind of material are we talking about?

So, plants are primarily made of cellulose.

It's the fibrous part of all plants, and it turns out that material can support the growth of human cells and tissues.

We are, in labs, making different types of organs already, right?

So, how is this process different?

So, one of the main things, main problems with the way we currently do things is these materials are typically sourced from, you know, petrochemical products or animal products or even human by-products.

So, there's this cost and ethics and environmental concerns around all of these materials.

What we've discovered is a way to create very similar materials very cheaply that are just as effective in some applications and can work once implanted as well.

So, how long does this process take?

Walk me through the process a little bit.

Yeah, so, one of my grad students will, you know, go to the grocery store and buy some produce that we're interested in using, and we'll choose different plants depending on what problem we're trying to work on.

And the general process is we'll take that plant and bathe it in detergents, different soaps and things like that, and that removes all the plant cells, DNA, that sort of thing, and you're just left with that fibrous part of every plant, the cellulose.

And so at that point, we can then construct that cellulose in a way that might repair an ear or a part of a bone or that sort of thing.

And how do we know that our human bodies won't reject something that's foreign to it?

That was one of the big questions.

So, we embarked on a series of studies where we'd first study how the materials are accepted by the body -- animal bodies, so mouse and rat studies, and there, what was really exciting was that these materials were well accepted.

So, there's a very minimal foreign-body response, so an immune response, which isn't normal.

And what happened over the proceeding weeks was that these materials would get blood vessels growing inside them, cells invading.

So, they were really becoming a living, integrated part of the body.

And, really, the next step is to go to human trials, and that's what we're preparing for right now.

So, right now, are you working on animal trials, or have you already done those?

We've done them.

There's lots to do from different -- depending on the particular medical application.

And then we've spun out a company a couple years ago that's now working on the first steps to going to human safety trials.

So, the cellulose that you're taking from, like, apple fiber or other fibers, you can construct it into a skeleton of what you want.

Then how does it actually grow?

It's basically just the scaffold.

So, you think about it almost like as a play structure or a gym.

We put that into the body where there's been a defect or an injury or that sort of thing and allow the body to do what it already knows how to do, which is to heal.

And so plants -- It's funny.

Salads are really low calorie because we don't actually have enzymes to break down cellulose like other animals do.

And so what that means is this material stays in the body, it's relatively inert, and it just supports the new cells that are growing into that defect to heal and to create new tissues.

So, that's what's been kind of exciting about this whole thing.

And eventually does the cellulose just get kind of absorbed, or I guess it's kind of covered over by all these other cells, and then your body just thinks it's an ear?

Exactly, yeah.

So, if we provide the shape -- Let's say we're working on some soft tissue in the nose or wherever, surrounding cells that are supposed to be there will invade inside of the scaffold, they'll set up shop, they'll do what they do best, and put down new matrix and proteins and basically reconstruct the area in the way that they want it to be.

So, it's really just providing a bit of support to allow the body to heal.

And how we sort of envision the future is, you know, you might, as a patient, decide what that ear looks like.

You might commission an artist to create the scaffold for you.

So, how far out are we from seeing human trials and then possibly kind of commercial version of this that would end up in an operating theater somewhere?

So, we are not that far out.

We should be entering human trials next year, in 2018.

And at that point, you know, what we really have to -- Our next challenge is just show that it's safe in humans, and then do our diligence there, and then we can start moving onto the bigger trials.

All right, Andrew Pelling at the University of Ottawa, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, thank you.

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As ocean water warms and ice sheets around the world melt, climate change has caused ocean levels to rise, and almost everyone in the North Carolina coastal town of Swan Quarter can feel the effects.

However, the impact will be much greater if not for a decades-old piece of unique infrastructure.

This segment is part of an ongoing public media reporting initiative called 'Peril & Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.

Well, my brother and I have taken it over.

It gives us a lot of freedom.

You get to work with a lot of good people.

You don't do the same thing every day.

You're outside.

It's just a nice, nice business.

Newman Seafood sits on a spit of land jutting into Pamlico Sound.

It's just outside Swan Quarter.

You have a lot of years where it's make or break.

If you cover your expenses, you feel really good about it, and you have a year where you come ahead some.

The family-owned firm has weathered the winds and water for almost 40 years.

It's more of a challenge these days because the area sees minor flooding several times per month, even without storms in the area.

It's worse during hurricane season.

We deal with small shrimp boats.

We deal with crab boats, fish boats.

Wind really dictates when they can work and when they can't, where they can work, where they can't.

We also -- Our road -- You can see over around that boat ramp some, the tide starting to come in.

Our road floods when we have really strong northwest winds.

That makes it hard for us to work where we're at.

The docks are outside of the almost 18-mile dike that protects the town and the valuable farmland around it.

I do think the dike has really helped the town.

I think it's probably helped our farmers a lot.

It keeps the salt water from intruding on their land.

I'm lucky where my business is.

We're on a high hill.

I flood this side of me, and I flood on the other side of me.

We're getting ready to come up on the dike right here.

He doesn't need to load back the beans.

He just needs to plan on doing that first thing tomorrow.

My name is J.W. Spencer, live in Hyde County, farmed basically all my life.

Chairman of the Hyde County Soil and Water Board.

About three quarters of what we farm is protected by the dike.

Probably half of that three quarters wouldn't be able to be cultivated now.

It would be totally ruined.

Be pine trees.

It wouldn't be feasible to cultivate it.

Construction of the dike system started 30 years ago.

It was first built to stop storm-driven waves from flooding farmland.

That's called saltwater intrusion.

Salt water renders farmland unproductive for decades. so bad.

It's just sterile.

About 20,000 acres, that's roughly 1/5 of Hyde County's farmland, was ruined by saltwater intrusion before the dike was built.

The dike is a packed earthen berm protecting farmland for most of its length.

It tops out at six feet above sea level.

It's difficult to see from the ground, but from the air, it's clear what the dike system protects.

J.W.'s farm is on the left.

The dike, with the dirt road on top, runs parallel to the drainage canal.

Trees that can survive a mix of fresh and salt water grow near the dike and canal, but the trees then give way to salt marsh all the way to Pamlico Sound.

That floodgate is on hinges on the top.

There are seven floodgates like this along the system.

The gates sit at the end of canals that drain storm water from farm fields.

And when you get a rain, it opens that gate up 'cause the pressure gets higher on the inside.

Pressure open the gate up, lets the water flow out.

When it gets even, those gates shut, and then when the tide comes up, they stay shut and don't let the salt water flow in.

Throughout the town of Swan Quarter, the dike is a steel-and-concrete wall.

There's a reminder at Pat's Service Station of how high floodwaters reached before the dike.

Dennis was '99.

Two weeks later, we had Floyd.

And that was in '99.

And then in 2003, we had Isabel.

The dike has worked.

It saved me four or five times.

It's absolutely key to protecting the tax base and the agricultural land and personal property value here at Swan Quarter.

But now residents living and working on both sides of the dike say the system is holding back more than just storm surge.

Minor flooding is common.

You got sea level rise.

Low tides are higher than they used to be.

High tides are higher than they used to be, and normal is high.

I'd say 3 to 4 inches higher.

Normal is 3 to 4 inches higher than it was 15 years ago.

Sea level rise is a real concern because most of Hyde County lies in the 100-year floodplain.

It's just 3 feet above sea level.

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows the potential ranges of sea level rise, and, at higher levels, the dike system would be overwhelmed.

But as the sea level rises, that 'nuisance' is going to occur 100, 150, 200 times a year.

In the near term, just 15 years from now in 2030, many of the coastal towns are going to be seeing upwards of 100 tidal floodings a year, and that's just with the tide.

You don't need a storm.

According to the experts, 100 years from now, Hyde County's gonna be underwater.

And I -- Ain't no way.

That's not gonna happen.

I don't know.

If we don't do some things like this dike project, we can protect it.

Moving forward, there will need to be plans to update and augment the function of the dike here.

We're water-dependent.

The boats have to be able to pull up to my dock to unload, and if they can't do that, we just can't -- I can't load it from here onto a truck to take it in town to work with it.

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.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪