Advancing Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Floyd Romesberg

Floyd Romesberg, synthetic biology expert

Floyd Romesberg

In his TEDMED 2015 talk, Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg shares his enthusiasm for developing artificial DNA and its implications for novel protein therapeutics. We caught up with Floyd to learn more about the exciting work of his lab.

TEDMED: What has your lab been up to since you spoke at TEDMED?

FLOYD: Since I spoke at TEDMED, my lab has continued to nurture and optimize our semi-synthetic organism. The nascent organism I described in my talk was the first to replicate DNA containing a third base pair, but only a single pair, and the poorly growing organism rapidly lost the unnatural base pair under all but the most controlled conditions. It was an incredible proof of principle, but lacked the fortitude of real life. The newly improved organism still relies on the same protein to take up the unnatural nucleotide precursors of our unnatural base pair, but we have engineered the protein to be less toxic and are now utilizing a newer, chemically optimized unnatural base pair. In addition, we have optimized the host cell. The result is a semi-synthetic bacterial organism that can be grown like any other laboratory strain and that retains multiple unnatural base pairs in virtually any sequence context – the first semi-synthetic form of life that stores genetic information using a six-letter, three base pair alphabet.

TEDMED: What’s next for you?

FLOYD: We’re continuing to push forward with the semi-synthetic organism. Since we reached the milestone of unrestricted storage of increased genetic information, the next step has been to focus on information retrieval in the form of messenger and transfer RNA transcribed from the six-letter DNA. The unnatural base pair will be one third of a new amino acid codon, and we’re also working on engineering the components to decode the new codon into a novel amino acid during protein synthesis. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate, and we have to get each part to work but we also have to make sure the parts all work together. It might sound like an insurmountable problem, but that’s what people thought about our efforts to expand the genetic alphabet. It may take some time, but getting bacteria to produce unnatural proteins should be possible. When we accomplish this, we will have created the first form of synthetic life that stores and retrieves increased information and which can access forms and functions not otherwise possible in the fully natural world.

TEDMED: What does the future of medicine look like with protein therapeutics?

FLOYD: Protein therapeutics have revolutionized medicine, but their potential activities and uses are limited by their being composed of only the natural twenty amino acids and in the challenges of their specific modification. The future of protein therapeutics lies in methodologies to include any chemical functionality into their composition, thereby imparting novel or optimized activities and properties. With development of our semi-synthetic organism, we will be able to produce the unnatural proteins directly during their synthesis within the cell. In this manner we should be able to extend the potential application of protein therapeutics to diseases that have been difficult to target, such as infectious diseases and cancer. The possibilities are essentially endless.

TEDMED: What kind of impact do you want your research to have?

FLOYD: I would like our research to impact our conceptual understanding of life– what it can be and how it might have evolved– and also influence our practical uses of it, by producing modified proteins to treat disease.

Dispatches of solace and hope: Q&A with Sarah Gray

On Hope and Solace: Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray

In her TEDMED talk, Sarah Gray, director of communications for the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB), shared her journey to find meaning in her most tragic loss by learning how to donate the organs of her newborn son to advance scientific research. We asked Sarah to tell us more about her outreach work.

TEDMED: Could you share any exciting stories you’ve encountered in your work?

SARAH: On the research front, I’m pleased to share that Eversight, one of the largest consortiums of eye banks in the USA, recently launched a new program called Hope and Healing that is designed to help eye donor families meet the researchers who received their loved one’s tissue.

In a story similar to my own, an especially touching family tale is about Amalya, a baby who died of anencephaly who donated to a variety of studies around the USA. His parents were able to meet some of the researchers who received his donations and learn about the impact of his donation.

TEDMED: In your TEDMED talk, you encouraged the audience to contact you with any stories of their own about tissue donation. With over a million views of your talk, have you connected with any viewers with powerful stories of tissue, organ or marrow donation?

SARAH: Absolutely! I have received emails from amazing people from all over the world, from New Zealand and South Africa to Scotland, Spain and France. Some just wanted to say that they liked the talk, some shared stories of loss, some told me that I helped them see a new perspective, and some asked for practical advice about donation and obtaining research samples. One researcher contacted me to find out where he might be able to access different types of tissue for a study on the genetic causes of certain diseases and I am glad I was able to help him.

I was really touched by every person who reached out, and a few of the emails in particular. Two different people from two different countries told me they had terminal cancer and wanted to know where they might be able to donate their tissue when they pass away so that the study of their tissue might help others. Reading these emails was so moving and I am honored I was able to help them.

Learn more about Sarah’s journey in her powerful memoir, A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy’s Gift to Medical Science. 

Another Dimension to 3D Printing

Most of us understand the basics of 3D printing; a machine that uses a variety of materials like titanium, wax, and plastic to create a three-dimensional object. But the technology being used today to print anything from violins to living organs may sound like science fiction compared to the simple plastic objects that were being created at the outset of 3D printing, just over 30 years ago. At TEDMED 2016, we are lucky to have some of the trailblazers that are driving these exciting developments in the scientific and medical applications of 3D printing.

One such example is a TEDMED 2016 Hive organization, the NIH 3D Print Exchange, led by Meghan Coakley, which is working to solve the problems of finding and creating 3D-printable models that are scientifically accurate. As part of a collaborative effort led by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the NIH 3D Print Exchange created an open website where users can browse, download and share educational material, tutorials, and biomedical 3D print files. This resource will prove invaluable for novice students and experienced researchers alike, by helping medical students grasp complex concepts, by assisting researchers in studying internal body structures, and by allowing doctors to more accurately plan for surgeries and inform their patients.


Image courtesy of Sujey Morgan.

One of the doctors using 3D printing in her practice is TEDMED 2016 Speaker, Sujey Morgan. As a maxillofacial prosthodontist at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Sujey creates facial prostheses for those who have endured traumatic experiences, such as skin cancer, accidents and birth defects. The introduction of 3D printing has allowed Sujey to drastically decrease the amount of time it takes to create prostheses for her patients; cutting a 40-80 hour sculpting process down to just one hour of printing. The extra time allows her to outfit more patients with synthetic ears, noses, and mouths to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives and provide them with necessary tools for functions such as chewing, swallowing, and speech.

While Sujey’s prostheses are made of silicon, others are using 3D printing to create living organs and tissues. BioBots, a TEDMED 2016 Hive organization co-founded by Ricky Solorzano, has developed a 3D printer that uses biomaterials to build 3D living tissue out of human cells. Bones, muscle tissue, and cartilage have all been fabricated using the Biobot 1 bioprinter; Biobots’ first edition of their desktop size printer. With the size and cost coming in way below the average 3D printer on the market, Biobot 1 provides opportunities for labs with minimal resources to make a huge impact.


An image of Kaitlyn’s “Hovalin.” Image courtesy of Kaitlyn Hova.

With a similar interest in making 3D printing more accessible to the public, TEDMED 2016 Speaker Kaitlyn Hova has created an open source, 3D-printable violin, called the “Hovalin 2.0.” As a devoted musician and neuroscientist, she understands the impact that both fields can have on a young person’s life. But with many school arts programs being cut, and STEM programs taking their place, students don’t always have the opportunity to experience the power of music and the arts. With the Hovalin and its accompanying software, Kaitlyn seeks to inspire kids to make instruments of their own, thereby using science to breathe life back into the dwindling music programs.

We’re inspired by the unique and meaningful solutions each one of these speakers and entrepreneurs has found to advance the field of 3D printing. Join us at TEDMED 2016 to learn more about these stories and thoughts on the future of health and medicine.

Announcing the TEDMED 2016 Speaker Illustrator: Gabriel Gutiérrez

There is an undeniable relationship between healing and art, not only for the audience, but also for the creator. For many, the act of creating can be therapeutic, providing respite from everyday challenges through cultivating the power of personal expression. The healing nature of art is an important feature of the TEDMED stage program that will be addressed by a number of our speakers, including the artistic patient advocate Ted Meyer, music-medicine connector Richard Kogan, and civic-minded composer Dan Visconti.

But we don’t only celebrate art on stage. Committed to multidisciplinary thinking, TEDMED carefully crafts every aspect of our annual event to capture the imagination, and art and design are core components of the overall TEDMED experience. To that end, every year, TEDMED selects an artist from its community to create vivid portraits of the TEDMED speakers. In the past, we’ve had the honor of working with internationally acclaimed artists and supporting young artists through programs at the Rhode Island School of Design whose unique talents resulted in captivating work.

When we began our search for the TEDMED 2016 Speaker Illustrator, we were dedicated to finding undiscovered talent. In February, we set out to crowdsource an artist from the wonderfully diverse TEDMED community. In the months that followed, we received dozens of applications from all over the world, including Russia and the Middle East, which showcased outstanding examples of creativity in action.

We are so very proud to announce this year’s speaker illustrator: Gabriel Gutiérrez. Hailing from Mexico, Gabriel is a 20-year-old film student passionate about different art forms, including drawing and writing. Not only will Gabriel’s speaker illustrations be featured in the TEDMED program guide and website, they’ll be reprinted, larger than life, to be enjoyed on-site at this year’s event in Palm Springs, CA.


Gabriel Gutiérrez

Intrigued by Gabriel’s personal story and curious to learn more about his drive to create art, we reached out to him with a few questions. Read on to learn more…

blogGabriel, did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Gabriel: Ever since I was young, I’ve always had a special attitude. My mom has told me that I was a very serious child, one who would rather observe
his surroundings instead of expressing himself with noises and actions. I’ve enjoyed drawing all my life, which has made me feel proud of calling myself an artist.

In addition to drawing, do you work in other media as well?

I happen to enjoy writing just as much as I do drawing and painting, because the act of making something out of nothings and everythings has no limit.

What roles have health and medicine played in your art?

When I was little, I was diagnosed with Gilles de la Tourette’s Syndrome, and it was a thing that I couldn’t manage to understand. I never felt even slightly different until I became self-aware that, somehow, maybe I was. However, after focusing on art for a few years, I was finally able to control my tics. It seemed as if they had disappeared.

Amazing. What do you think accounts for this?

I remember reading an article where it said that tics are similar to scratching and itch, where a person with GTS will repeat the tic until it feels just right. Maybe drawing did that for me, and maybe pouring so much time into the creative process didn’t leave any time for the mysterious itch.

Are your symptoms completely gone, then?

When I find myself trapped in nervousness or stress and am unable to let my artistic me out, I start blinking and sniffing and rolling my eyes again. It’s something about myself that I happen to enjoy, even if it might look silly.

What is your view on the connection between creativity and our emotional and physical health?

Creating is something that I love deeply, because it’s something that brings comfort in every situation.

Our deepest gratitude to Gabriel for sharing his talents with the TEDMED community.

Celebrating the life-saving act of caregiving

With each event, TEDMED draws special attention to caregivers and celebrates the invaluable roles they play in healthcare delivery. In past years, we’ve highlighted somewhat unconventional caregivers, such as the comedic duo Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter, who draw upon the rules of improvisational acting to inject their caregiving with elements of openness and compassion. Yet again, caregiving is an important focus of the TEDMED stage program and Hive. At TEDMED 2016, we’ll be exploring new models for care delivery, particularly for the elderly, as well as honoring the unique relationships caregivers have with their patients.


Image courtesy of The New York Times

Like Karen and Mondy, TEDMED 2016 speaker and mental health professional Cheryl Steed takes an unexpected approach to caregiving for people with dementia – but, in this case, what’s particularly unique is that the providers are convicted felons. As a clinical psychologist at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Cheryl leads the Gold Coat Program, through which prisoners are trained to provide support for ailing inmates suffering from cognitive impairments, such as brain injuries, strokes, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alzheimer’s Disease has grown to be a pressing public health challenge in the United States, with the population of Americans over 65 expected to nearly double to 84 million between now and 2050. This is especially true in prison populations, where the increasing rates of dementia are a fast-growing and under-reported issue that the majority of prisons are ill-equipped to handle. The Gold Coat Program is an inventive and resourceful effort to provide care for ailing inmates, who are often the most vulnerable members of the prison population. A Gold Coat’s job description is both physically and emotionally taxing, and includes helping inmates with intimate tasks such as showering, going to the bathroom, cleaning their cells, and eating. Yet, perhaps the most important aspect of the Gold Coat’s role is offering companionship to the inmates, through which they develop a trusting and caring bond. The experience is not only life-changing for the ailing inmate, but for their caregiver, as well.


Image courtesy of Honor

Another unique approach to providing care for the elderly that will be featured at TEDMED 2016 is Honor, an ambitious new effort to modernize in-home care for senior citizens and allow them to live in their own homes with joy, comfort and grace. Currently, the home care industry employs 1.5 million caregivers for senior citizens; yet, finding a caregiver is often a convoluted and inefficient process, and workers are often underpaid, work part-time, or have limited control over their schedules. Through Honor, the process is simplified and caregivers can list their qualifications, skills, and job requirements on an online marketplace, where they will then be matched with elderly patients seeking care. By combining care professionals with smart, easy to use technology, Honor makes it easier for elderly to find the right care at the right time.


Image courtesy of The American Nurse Project

According to Honor’s co-founder and TEDMED Hive entrepreneur, Sandy Jen, the company is aptly named as its mission is to honor the elderly with dignified care. Similarly, award-winning filmmaker and TEDMED 2016 speaker Carolyn Jones is driven by a mission to honor nurses for the integral role they play in the lives of their patients. As the creator of The American Nurse Project, Carolyn Jones is incredibly passionate about paying tribute to nurses across the country who have pledged their lives to caring for others. For Carolyn, this journey of appreciation was sparked by a close relationship she had with her nurse when undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. The American Nurse Project has taken Carolyn across the country, where she’s documented the stories of fearless nurses serving on the frontlines of healthcare.

Together, these remarkable speakers and stories will shed light on new, innovative models of care, while deepening our appreciation for caregivers. At TEDMED 2016, Delegates will have the opportunity to learn more from their inspirational stories and insightful perspectives. We hope you’ll join us there.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This guest blog post was written by TEDMED 2015 speaker, critically acclaimed author, and sexuality investigator, Daniel Bergner.

The subjects I’ve chosen as a nonfiction writer may seem pretty scattered. My first nonfiction book, God of the Rodeo, was about a group of convicts in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, where almost all the inmates are serving life without the slightest chance of parole. My fourth book, What Do Women Want?, was the topic of this TEDMED talk – female desire. But things aren’t as scattered as they seem. In fact, I’m fairly obsessive. Over and over, throughout my writings, I’ve dealt with two subjects, race and eros. And as I’ve focused on these subjects, the common thread is how we perceive and understand ourselves.

Daniel Bergner's new book, Sing for your Life.

Daniel Bergner’s new book, Sing For Your Life.

That’s what my TEDMED talk is about—the stories we, as a culture, tell ourselves about female sexuality and the way these stories permeate our expectations about men and women. Shortly after I gave my TEDMED talk, I overheard someone remark that she couldn’t stand it when men speak about female sexuality. While I didn’t discuss it with her, I do think that her preconceptions might have prevented her from really hearing my talk, which was based largely on the work of female scientists, like Meredith Chivers. The goal of my talk was, at the very least, to call into question some of our conventional ways of seeing the world we live in, and the assumptions that tend to serve men awfully well.

This is again a theme in my new book, Sing For Your Life. It’s about the personal and artistic journey of an extremely unlikely opera singer, Ryan Speedo Green, a young African-American man who grew up in rural Virginia in a bullet-riddled shack across the street from a drug dealer’s den, who was locked up as a kid in Virginia’s juvenile facility of last resort, and who is starring at the Metropolitan Opera this fall in La Boheme. It’s a story about all that we, too often, fail to see in each other, and all that we can easily fail to see in ourselves.

Sing For Your Life is about blindness, and about seeing, as I think all my books are. Which is maybe true about all the books on our shelves, the ones we care about. They’re about the unexpected, the unlikely, the things that go unnoticed, coming into view.

Critically acclaimed author and sexuality investigator Daniel Bergner shakes the foundations of society’s core beliefs about female desire and the science of promiscuity.

The revealing power of creative disguise

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Melissa Walker, a Creative Arts Therapist at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

This past month, I returned from a work excursion to Washington State and Alaska full of excitement and hope. My personal travels have never taken me to the Pacific Northwest or the Last Frontier, so the incredibly beautiful backdrop of cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, WA, and Anchorage and Seward, AK, was the cherry on top of our goal to spread the treatment we are most passionate about across the nation.

Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. PR Contact: Mary El Pearce Public Affairs Liaison, National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) Associate, Booz Allen Hamilton NICoE Public Affairs Line: 301-319-3619 Booz Allen Office: 202-354-9412 Mobile: 404-285-5005

Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. Photo credit: Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Our team, composed of Department of Defense (DoD) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) staff, visited military traumatic brain injury (TBI) outpatient clinics to discuss the integration of the creative arts therapies into their treatment models. We also met with state and local arts agencies, community arts organizations, and local artists to encourage arts involvement of active duty military service members and veterans outside of, and alongside, the clinical setting.

Prior to these visits, the team also traveled to TBI clinics on military bases in North Carolina and California with the mission to expand, replicate, and support access to creative arts therapies treatment within the DoD. All were met with enthusiasm and a desire to offer treatments such as art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and drama therapy to our recovering military service members.

Though creative art therapists have been employed by the DoD and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for many years, it wasn’t until very recently, after two Federal Agencies–the NEA and the DoD–united in what should be considered a role model Partnership, that the creative arts therapies were elevated to a nationally accepted level as a core integrative treatment for military service members diagnosed with the signature, invisible wounds of our most recent wars, TBI and underlying psychological health concerns to include post-traumatic stress (PTS).

This all began in 2011 when the NEA partnered with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD, to adapt their Operation Homecoming creative writing initiative to the military healthcare setting.   The NEA offered to integrate creative and therapeutic writing into the existing Healing Arts Program, which was then composed solely of art therapy.  The integration of creative and therapeutic writing into the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE was a success.  Patient response to the writing, as well as a two-year survey ranking art therapy in the top five treatments of over forty that the service members found to be beneficial to their recovery, prompted the Partnership to begin exploring ways to expand creative arts therapies offerings.  A music therapy program began at NICoE in 2013 and shortly after, an art therapist was embedded at the NICoE Intrepid Spirit in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia – one of nine planned NICoE satellite centers.

There, positive patient and staff feedback led to the transition of that art therapist from contractor to a permanent DoD civilian and then the position was back-filled with a music therapist. The majority of service members treated at NICoE are stationed in Virginia Beach, so shortly after an art therapist was hired via the Partnership and embedded in the community there. It was crucial that service members responding to art therapy at the NICoE have follow-on care back at their home base. And at NICoE, creative arts therapies offerings continued to expand when the NICoE hired a Wellness Coordinator who is also a dance/movement therapist, and the NEA brought in an additional art therapist so that I could dedicate more of my time to outreach and research efforts.


A mask created by an active duty member as part of Melissa’s Healing Arts Program.

Fortunately, Capitol Hill has responded very positively to the Partnership’s impact, and this year an increase of 1.9 million dollars in NEA funding was implemented for the replication and expansion of the NEA Military Healing Arts Network within not only key active duty military treatment facilities across the nation such as the ones I mentioned earlier, but also within the VA and community settings. As service members transition from active duty to becoming veterans and members of society, it is important that we ensure access to the arts so that they can serve as a therapeutic outlet across the continuum.  We would also like to bridge the divide between clinical and community arts settings, ensuring warm hand-offs as service members transition from active duty to retirement.

The goal of nine additional, for a total of twelve, clinical settings to the Partnership within the DoD and VA has been set for integration this year alone. Each of these settings will be connected to promising community arts programs. This means access to the arts as a form of healing and resilience for over 10,000 service members and veterans within our healthcare system and community, per year.

I, for one, cannot wait to see the amazing outcomes I have witnessed within the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE spill out and touch every service member and veteran possible over the next five, ten, twenty years… across ALL states. In the words of a former NICoE Director who has chosen to work for the Partnership post-retirement: “The creative arts therapies are no longer a nice to have, they are a NEED to have.” And this expansion is making that possible.

Portrait_MElissaWalkerCreative arts therapist Melissa Walker describes how she creates a haven where military service members recovering from traumatic brain injury and mental illness can safely unmask their invisible wounds.

How to Solve the World’s Sanitation Problem: Let the Problem Get Bigger

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Peter Janicki, a founding member of Janicki Industries.

I have been working on large mechanical engineering projects since I got out of college 25 years ago, but the last 3-4 years have been by far the most exciting and rewarding. When you travel through the streets of India or Africa you see some of the most industrious, talented and hardworking people ever, but many of them are just struggling to survive and the sanitation conditions are awful. Making money using fecal sludge, garbage and other waste as the feed stock to radically transform these conditions is my dream.

OP S100 (4) Dakar

Peter Janicki’s Omni Processor in Dakar, Senegal.

With this dream, I designed a machined we call the Omni Processor, which evaporates the water out of sewage, uses the dried solids as fuel to power a boiler, makes high pressure steam, and drives a steam engine to produce electricity. The great news is that my first such machine has been operating in Dakar, Senegal for over a year now, and has passed many milestones. Last month, the water we are making from raw sewage was tested and passed every possible test with flying colors. The steam engine in our Dakar unit is now powering the Omni Processor itself, the control offices and air conditioners, as well as large customer electrical loads.

Making affordable electric power and clean drinking water from sewage is a tremendous achievement, and we recognize that. When you walk through our engineering offices, you can feel the excitement and optimism for the future. Nothing is perfect and we are continuing to improve the power output and overall mechanical system, but we will get there. It is inevitable that, with continued focus and perseverance, the equipment will work as dreamed.

When I reflect upon the journey so far, it is clear that I woefully underestimated the engineering effort to design, build and deploy this machine. But, in some ways, this is my life story. I am overly optimistic and this is part of the magic to being successful. I look at what appears to be an impossible problem and say, “Ok, we can do this, let’s go for it.” And, in the end, this optimism, coupled with tremendous perseverance, wins. While there will always be opportunity to improve the technology, the next real challenge is successfully integrating this machine into the social and political landscape of these cultures. I recognize that this is, by and large, not an engineering problem; rather, it is a matter of understanding human nature and culture outside of my area of experience. We can and will learn from others as we install equipment in these communities.

Like so many other problems I have faced, I am probably underestimating how hard it is going to be to get this perfect, but I will remain optimistic. In the end, with perseverance, focus and hard work, I am confident we will win on this front, as well. We will figure this out. We will not stop until we do. My team and I work 24/7, day after day, year after year, and never give up. I talk to my team on Saturday night, or late in the evenings, or at 5 o’clock in the morning—whenever inspiration arrives. We win, because we focus on winning. Ideas come to you when you are dreaming, going for a walk, taking a shower–not just from 8-5 in an office. Seize the moment when it comes. Do not let the opportunity of inspiration pass.

Janicki_crop_portraitEngineer Peter Janicki describes his unique methods for setting industry standards across sectors, from airplanes and boats to his current fascination–basic sanitation in low-income countries.

The hidden ingenuity of nurses: Q&A with Anna Young

In her TEDMED 2015 talk, MakerHealth CEO and Co-Founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of MakerNurses, frontline clinicians, and patients who innovate to improve health care. Using a maker mindset of hands-on problem solving and experimentation, nurses, respiratory therapists, medical residents and patients in the MakerHealth network are reinventing medical technology. We caught up with Anna to learn more about her work, and what’s on the horizon for MakerNurse and MakerHealth. 

Q: Are there any recent MakerNurse innovations that you are especially excited about?

A: The most impressive projects we hear are the ones that launch from idea to prototype in less than a week! When we launched MakerNurse, nurses reached out sharing their ideas. Now, nurses are calling us to share their prototypes! Some of the recent nurse-made projects we’ve guided include: home care devices for improved patient hygiene, a custom patient support pillow, and a toy bear modified to support a PICU patient’s ventilator tubing.


Driscoll Children’s Hospital, Corpus Christi, TX

Earlier this summer, Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, TX, one of the MakerNurse Expedition Sites, performed an incredible operation to separate two conjoined twins. From surgical planning to the patients’ rehabilitation, the process was full of health making that made us so proud to be working with Driscoll. The surgeons modified two toy dolls to match the anatomy of the twins and 3D printed a model of their organs from a DICOM file to help with surgical preparation. The nurses created custom, color-coded surgical caps to identify the clinicians for each of the twins: one team wearing purple and the other team yellow. During the rehabilitation, the Occupational Therapists and Child Life Specialists built an interactive mobile from PVC tubing, custom dimensioned around the bandage constraints of the twins.

For this care team, a maker mindset and access to prototyping tools helped them care for delicate, high-risk, N=1 patients. The innovations at Driscoll – the surgical models, custom caps and PVC rehab mobiles will never be commercialized because the market is too small. If you think about it though, the patient doesn’t care. So with a MakerHealth toolset and mindset, this team in Corpus Christi is reinventing care.

Q: You started your journey with nurses. How did MakerNurse grow to reach other health care professions and patients through MakerHealth?

A: Our academic roots at the Little Devices Lab at MIT had been looking at the science of medical making for a long time in hospitals in Nicaragua, Nigeria and Ethiopia. We got a huge shot in the arm when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the translation of our research framework for international health making into a framework for finding frontline MakerNurses across the American health care system. In the US, nurses are natural hands-on problem solvers and leaders in making, but they don’t operate alone in their tinkering. As we roll out the MakerHealth Program in hospitals, we are working with doctors making surgical tools, OTs and PTs creating adaptive devices and even police teams joining the community by 3D printing lock jigs. We’ve created on-ramps and just-in-time learning blocks to help all staff inside of the hospital learn the skills needed to prototype.

This same model of medical prototyping and sharing grew beyond the hospital walls. We saw with a parent in Ohio, who refused to wait for Medicaid to kick in to reimburse a walker for his daughter who has an endocrine disorder. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves, went into his garage and transformed his grandmother’s adult walker into a child-size one for his daughter. Bonus, he spray painted it purple. Her favorite color. This is the heart of health making, people who are driven to create solutions for the patients closest to them.

Q: What are today’s grand visionary plans of MakerHealth?

A: Health making is revolutionizing the way care is delivered in hospitals, clinics, and home care divisions across the globe. Patient-made machines are changing the provider-patient dynamic. The solutions by frontline staff are making care better and more affordable. Everyone is working to get rid of the black box of medicine: hidden engineering, hostage data and runaway prices. When the status-quo medical device becomes too cost-prohibitive, we see emergency response teams in Seattle respond by rolling out their own DIY kits. We are driven to show health systems how to move these health prototypes into clinical care. Right now, medicine is a temple of evidence raised practice. We’re bringing back an experimental mindset where everyone gets to ask the questions-and everyone gets to build the answers. You need tools: so we are going to continue to grow our hospital makerspaces, we’re writing new types of medical and nursing school curriculum, and folks can now order prototyping kits shipped to their home. We are reinventing health care one maker at a time.

annayoung_blogcaption MakerNurse co-founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital units to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of nurses who innovate to improve patient care on a daily basis.

A Beginner’s Guide to Insect Farming

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Shobhita Soor, a founding member of the Aspire Food Group.

At Aspire, we often get inquiries about how to start and scale up insect farms. The truth is, starting up a never-been-created-before edible insect farm is an exciting but challenging task. There is so much research to do, and so many unknowns around scaling up farming of the insects, the market’s response to your product and price point, and packaging possibilities. At Aspire, we faced these hurdles as well as the adjustments to living in a new country!


Edible insects can compliment delicious dishes or can simply be eaten on their own as snacks.

The crucial first step is to have an insect to market match. When choosing which insect to farm, our most basic question is: “Do people eat this already?” or “Will people even considering eating this?”. In Central and Southern Ghana, for example, the palm weevil larva is already consumed in a harvested form. Since the farmed version is almost identical but safer, we were sure it would be acceptable to consumers. In that case, an interesting nuance that we had to pull apart was whether buyers would be willing to pay for an otherwise harvested (and free!) product. We found that, since the supply in the wild had decreased due to increased use of pesticide in palm plantations, there was a strong desire for a steady supply of palm weevil larva. In the United States, however, it was a bit trickier. We had to look at analogous products and do some market testing to know whether segments in the American food market were ready for cricket powder and roasted crickets.

Once we have an insect that people are actually excited to eat (and willing to pay for!), we want to make sure that the insect species is amenable to large-scale farming in a cost-efficient manner. This can be a long process–we look at other existing edible insect farms, traditional livestock rearing, and methods with which to make this more efficient by collecting a lot of data on our farms. Early on, we also consider how to process and package insects. Since edible insects have often been harvested and eaten shortly thereafter, we find innovative ways of processing and packaging insects, so that they are not only attractive to the consumer but also safe for consumption.

The nutritional profile of the insect in question is also tantamount to our choice of insect – our goal is to choose an insect that matches the nutrition needs of the market. Take palm weevil larva, for instance – it’s rich in essential fatty acid and protein making. That means it’s well-positioned to address the problems of child stunting; it’s also high in zinc, which aids in preventing diarrhea. In the United States, we aim to farm crickets as a lean source of protein that is also resource-efficient. Our goal is to displace traditional sources of protein (that can wreak havoc on the environment) with alternatives that are healthy for our planet. Currently, there is little data on the resource consumption of edible insect production, and this is something that we try to consistently measure.

These are just a few of the considerations we take into account when starting up an insect farm ¬– yet another important factor is the political and economic climate of the country in question. Changing food culture is complex, as people’s food traditions tend to be strong traditions. That said, in the Western world, we’ve begun to see culture shift where insect consumption is becoming more popular. From cricket flour in consumer packaged goods to whole insects showing up on restaurant menus, people are beginning to embrace insects as a part of their normal diet. We’re so excited to see how these nutritious and sustainable sources of protein will improve our health, and the health of our planet. This is just the beginning!