What are the most exciting things in business today?

Question: What are the most exciting things in business today 

Robert Hormats: There is still a great deal of innovation. There’s innovation in the energy sector.

There’s innovation in pharmaceutical industry. New drugs are being discovered all the time. Perhaps not as rapidly as one would hope to cure the major diseases of our time, but a lot of technical progress is being made there. A lot of brilliant people are working hard on developing new drugs.

There is also a sense among people in the business community that they know they have to play a broader role, a more robust role in the global economy. And they’re doing it quite well. I think the business community has a greater sense of the opportunities available than perhaps it did 10 years ago in many of these areas. And I have a lot of confidence that American business can respond to these challenges. But I think it’s also incumbent upon American business not just to look after its own interests in running their company’s profitably, although obviously one has to do that. That’s critical for any company if it wants to survive, and be very profitable, and enhance shareholder value, and improve the opportunities for its workers; but I think American business also have to play a greater role in the policy area.

American business should be a leader in emphasizing the importance of improving the American educational system. American business should be a leader in emphasizing that we need to reduce dependence on imported energy because we’re so vulnerable to disruptions there. American business should be the leader in supporting mid-career and late-career training programs or retraining programs for workers who are displaced by change.

American business should be insistent that the federal government address these long term financial issues of entitlements, not just sweep them under the rug or kick the can down the road. Business has to, if it wants to enhance its own prospects for the future, be very actively involved in the policy debate, and be a constructive player, and make sure that we don’t have this two-tiered society – a society divided between those who feel they’re benefiting from change, benefiting from globalization, and people who feel that change, and progress, and globalization are a threat.

And if they want to get the best employees in the future, they certainly have to be at the forefront of the effort to strengthen and enhance prospects for the education system. Because if we don’t have well trained students who can deal with mathematics, and physics, and chemistry, and biology at a very high level, American companies simply will not have the people they need for the next decade or two. And the American system will suffer, not to mention these individuals who won’t have jobs or won’t have good jobs, and will be deprived of the potential.

And that’s particularly true for minorities and people in the immigrant community. They need to get the very best possible education because they’re going to be a growing factor in the workforce. And unless we’re able to do that, and unless business is able to make this a high priority and willing to make it a high priority, those people will be alienated from our society. And our society won’t have the benefit of their talents, of their skills, of their creativity. And therefore the individuals lose and the society loses.

 

Recorded On: July 25, 2007

Hormats is jazzed about innovation in the energy sector.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.