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New Thinking on Alzheimer’s: Time for a Paradigm Shift?
By Shlomo Maital
Scientific breakthroughs come from iconoclastic researchers who are not afraid to smash consensus paradigms. Take, for instance, Prof. Michal Schwarz, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute. Here is what she told this week’s Haaretz (Hebrew) reporter:
The puzzle I pieced together is correct, and now I see the whole picture – how my research approach, for years against the consensus, has become one of the central focal points for research on all degenerative (neural) diseases.
The paradigm shift Schwarz has helped bring about is simple. Many researchers follow the “I dropped a coin” model – they look for it under the corner streetlight, instead of in dark corners, where it fell, because…. “that’s where the light is”. Alzheimer’s? Gooey proteins gumming up the brain and causing death? Look for cures that eliminate or prevent the protein directly, in the brain. Under the light.
But Schwarz? Let’s help the body’s own anti-immune system, outside the brain, fight those plaque accumulations that damage the brain. Last year the Daily Telegraph quoted Dr. Doug Brown, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher: “Repurposing drugs that already work for other conditions could provide us with a shortcut to new dementia treatments, and is a key aspect of our Drug Discovery programme.”
Here ‘s how the Daily Telegraph described Schwarz’s paradigm shift, in 2016: “The drugs, known as PD-1 blockers, effectively prevent the immune system from switching off, allowing a continuous cascade of soldier cells to fight disease and clear out damage in the body. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease sticky amyloid plaques build up which stop brain cells communicating with each other. But when mice, engineered to have Alzheimer’s symptoms, were given injections of the drug the amount of amyloid in their brains halved, and the animals were able to complete a maze task in the same time as control mice. Last year the first PD-1 blocker drug Keytruda was approved for use on the NHS by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence so it is already known to be a safe treatment.
“Lead author Prof Michal Schwartz of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, said that in Alzheimer’s a weakened immune system could be preventing the body from repairing itself. “We are extremely excited about our new study, we believe it is a game changer both conceptually and therapeutically,” she said.
Her research was published in the leading journal Nature Medicine.
Prof. Schwarz added: (in Hebrew): “In contrast to veteran old-time researchers, students have no history of believing dogma (existing paradigms)…they are fresh ears and eyes, without preconceptions. They were especially excited, with me, at our results, and joined my research and contributed to moving it forward, and some of them are continuing in my wake.”
As a (very) senior citizen, I have deep interest in breakthrough research on Alzheimer’s – half of those over 85 have it, at least early versions. Congratulations to Prof. Schwarz for becoming a woman scientist and for leading a paradigm shift that may help millions – including those in countries that despise Israel.
The Age of Wonkery
By Shlomo Maital
In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, April 11, David Brooks supplies a crucial insight.
Once the thinkers of the world were intellectual foxes. In Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, they had many many ideas and challenged all of them.
Today? We have wonks. They are hedgehogs. They have one BIG idea. And they sell it ferociously, regardless of the facts. In truth — they have given up thinking.
As Goethe observed, thinking is better than knowing (i.e. foxes are better than hedgehogs), but …looking is best of all. And wonks do not look (at the facts). Nor think about their Pablum ideologies.
So – we are doomed to live in the Age of Wonkery. Not too good for humanity.
Here is how Brooks frames it:
“People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with. That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live. In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.”
Brooks does not say this but — not only is President Trump a super-wonk but – he has peppered his so-called administration with similar super-wonks, who are not troubled by facts. And in upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere, we see rising political parties featuring wonkery at its extreme (e.g. get rid of foreigners, anyone not like us, that will solve our problems).
What does this mean for thinking people? Continue to fight. Challenge unsupported ideas. Build on facts. Dig up the facts. Think through issues. And above all embrace complexity. Wonks simplify…violating Einstein’s rule, simplify as much as possible – but not more so. Life is complex. Truth is complex. It cannot be reduced to a single variable, a single formula.
Wonks succeed because people are confused by complexity and want simple formulae. Don’t give in. Embrace complexity as a way of embracing truth – and fight back.
Creative Genius at 94: Here’s How!
By Shlomo Maital
John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “have just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times. “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.”
This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he co-invented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.
OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough???
He is 94 years old.
I often speak to groups of senior citizens, and tell them to restart their creative brains… reject the idea that you have no ideas under gray hair. It’s false!! I know a Technion colleague who invented an amazing cure for cancer after age 70.
Here is what Goodenough says: He started in physics, meandered through different fields, picking up clues as he went along. He hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, keeping his eyes on social nad political trends. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together”, he notes.
PUT IDEAS TOGETHER! That is creativity. And who can do it better than 94 year olds, who have seen and learned so much about life?
Thanks John! I’m 74. So maybe in two decades I will still have ideas….that create value.
Remember the name: Goodenough. What is, was not good enough for Goodenough. Even at 94.
Thinking in the Bubble: How to Detect Land Mines
By Shlomo Maital
Writing in the Hebrew daily Haaretz, today, Ruth Schuster reports on a clever creative invention by Hebrew University scientists.
The problem: undetected land mines.
“Land mines are the scourge of the survivor. They lurk in the soil for years and even generations after the fighting ends. Up to 20,000 people a year are wounded or killed after stumbling on hidden mines, and there has been no safe way for man or beast to detect them. According to Hebrew University, more than 100 million land mines remain buried around the world. Metal detectors do fine with traditional mines, but plastic ones elude them.”
A huge number of ideas to detect and clear mines have been tried. Here are a few:
Mine detection techniques have remained as pedestrian as they were in World War II: soldiers with sticks and serendipity; dogs, who do get killed; and pigs (a talent discovered by a kibbutznik in Israel). The most noteworthy advance in decades had been recognizing the mine-sniffing talents of the African pouched rat.
Now come Hebrew University of Jerusalem scientists, with a truly creative idea, thinking out of the box, or in the bubble or beads: Bubbles with bacteria that glow blue when they detect vapors emitted by land mines.. even tiny amounts of the gas, and all mines emit such vapors.
“Inspired by an idea that was first conceptualized in 1999, the scientists engineered bacteria that fluoresce when they come into contact with these vapors. The human mine detectors don’t have to keep the bacteria on a leash: they can monitor and react remotely. Nor are the bacteria free-range: they are encapsulated in beads that are scattered across the suspect land. The scientists tested the system with a laser-based scanning system, and the mines were found.”
Prof. Shimshon Belkin was responsible for genetically engineering the bacterial sensors. The research was published recently in the leading journal Nature.
In a Vacuum of Political Leadership: Can Business Step Up?
By Shlomo Maital
The Guardian carries an interesting interview with Paul Polman, Dutch CEO of Unilever, global food giant that employs 170,000 and has a market value of some 90 billion pounds sterling.
He makes a point we have often stressed in this blog: Multiplying global challenges demand global coordination and policies, yet countries increasingly are looking inward, “America First” from Trump is not the only example.
“Actually, that is one of the key issues in the world right now – the lack of global governance in a world that has become far more interdependent,” he says.
“Some countries have played their role historically, but seem to be falling back to their home base; others have not been able to step up to the plate, claiming developing market status. But increasingly the issues that we are facing – climate change, unemployment, social cohesion, food security – these are issues of global proportions. We are often trapped in short-termism … or other things.
“Many of the institutions that were designed have served us very well, but they were designed in 1948 at the time of Bretton Woods [the conference held in 1944]. It is not surprising that you have now got an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other alternatives because the world has moved on.”
I wish Polman would create a new “Bretton Woods” – a summit of top CEOs of the leading global companies. If politics is local, business is global. Why not then have global business rethink our policies and global infrastructure, and begin acting to implement them? These huge companies have enormous power, based on the electoral impact of their workers and the funds they donate to political parties.
Creativity: Can You Use What You Already Have?
By Shlomo Maital
One of the most powerful tools for practical pragmatic feet-on-the-ground creativity is – to use what exists, to solve unmet needs and unsolved problems. Joe Dickinson did this.
The problem: Lonely isolated older people, over 60 – soon there will be 2 billion of them in the world.
The challenge: Find a way to keep in close touch with them daily.
The breakthrough question: Who sees people every day, or nearly every day, on a regular basis? Answer? The postman.
Joe Dickinson, a postal worker in Jersey, a lovely vacation island off the cost of France, had this simple powerful idea. Use postal delivery people to check on elderly people. Call it: Call and Check. See if they are OK. See if they need anything or need medical help. Here is a short description:
Call & Check provides a regular visit for people – daily, weekly or as agreed. Our staff will have brief conversation with the customer to ascertain how they are and if they need anything. Working with our customers’ designated contacts, we are then able to relay important messages or requests back to the relevant authority for action. The postal worker is in no way providing medical care or assistance to the customer, we are simply a regular, friendly face that frequently calls and checks, and can raise concerns with relevant third parties where necessary.
Call and Check has already saved elderly lives.
Innovator: Can you use this approach? Can you define a social problem, and then solve it using what exists already? Example: India’s Lifeline Express – a medical train that uses India’s extensive system of rails to reach outlying villages and bring medical care to those who have no access to it.