Here's a riddle: What do the Moon, nuclear weapons, clean energy of the future, terrorism, and lung disease all have in common?
One goal of India's upcoming space probe is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars.
The answer is helium-3, a gas that's extremely rare on Earth but 100 million times more abundant on the Moon. This past October, the Lockheed Martin corporation announced a concept for a lunar landing craft that may return humans to the Moon in the coming decade, and yesterday China successfully landed the Change-4 probe on the far side of the Moon. Landing inside the Moon's deepest crater, the Chinese achieved a first in space exploration history.
Meanwhile, later this month, India's Chandrayaan-2 space probe will also land on the lunar surface. One of its goals is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars, because it could be a fuel for nuclear fusion energy to generate electricity or propel a rocket.
The standard way that nuclear engineers are trying to achieve sustainable fusion uses fuels that are more plentiful on Earth: deuterium and tritium. But MIT researchers have found that adding small amounts of helium-3 to the mix could make it much more efficient, and thus a viable energy source much sooner that once thought.
Even if fusion is proven practical tomorrow, any kind of nuclear energy involves long waits for power plant construction measured in decades. However, mining helium-3 could be useful now, because of its non-energy applications. A major one is its ability to detect neutrons coming from plutonium that could be used in terrorist attacks. Here's how it works: a small amount of helium-3 is contained within a forensic instrument. When a neutron hits an atom of helium-3, the reaction produces tritium, a proton, and an electrical charge, alerting investigators to the possibility that plutonium is nearby.
Ironically, as global concern about a potential for hidden nuclear material increased in the early 2000s, so did the supply of helium-3 on Earth. That's because helium-3 comes from the decay of tritium, used in thermonuclear warheads (H-bombs). Thousands of such weapons have been dismantled from U.S. and Russian arsenals, making helium-3 available for plutonium detection, research, and other applications--including in the world of healthcare.
Helium-3 can help doctors diagnose lung diseases, since it enables imaging of the lungs in real time.
Helium-3 dramatically improves the ability of doctors to image the lungs in a range of diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which happens particularly in premature infants. Specifically, helium-3 is useful in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a procedure that creates images from within the body for diagnostic purposes.
But while a standard MRI allows doctors to visualize parts of the body like the heart or brain, it's useless for seeing the lungs. Because lungs are filled with air, which is much less dense than water or fat, effectively no signals are produced that would enable imaging.
To compensate for this problem, a patient can inhale gas that is hyperpolarized –meaning enhanced with special procedures so that the magnetic resonance signals from the lungs are finally readable. This gas is safe to breathe when mixed with enough oxygen to support life. Helium-3 is one such gas that can be hyperpolarized; since it produces such a strong signal, the MRI can literally see the air inside the lungs and in all of the airways, revealing intricate details of the bronchopulmonary tree. And it can do this in real time
The capability to show anatomic details of the lungs and airways, and the ability to display functional imaging as a patient breathes, makes helium-3 MRI far better than the standard method of testing lung function. Called spirometry, this method tells physicians how the lungs function overall, but does not home in on particular areas that may be causing a problem. Plus, spirometry requires patients to follow instructions and hold their breath, so it is not great for testing young children with pulmonary disease.
In recent years, the cost of helium-3 on Earth has skyrocketed.
Over the past several years, researchers have been developing MRI for lung testing using other hyperpolarized gases. The main alternative to helium-3 is xenon-129. Over the years, researchers have learned to overcome certain disadvantages of the latter, such as its potential to put patients to sleep. Since helium-3 provides the strongest signal, though, it is still the best gas for MRI studies in many lung conditions.
But the supply of helium-3 on Earth has been decreasing in recent years, due to the declining rate of dismantling of warheads, just as the Department of Homeland Security has required more and more of the gas for neutron detection. As a result, the cost of the gas has skyrocketed. Less is available now for medical uses – unless, of course, we begin mining it on the moon.
The question is: Are the benefits worth the 239,000-mile trip?
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.