April 2013

by George Taniwaki

The inside back cover of each issue of Consumer Reports magazine has a column called Selling it. It features what it calls “Goofs, glitches, gotchas, and howlers from the world of advertising.” In the past week, I’ve encountered two cases of unusual packaging that may not be goofy enough for Consumer Reports, but definitely got my attention.

Shine your pie

The first example is a blueberry pie I purchased from a Kroger owned grocery store called QFC. Their bakery goods are sold under the Private Selection brand. They taste really good. As I was putting a box into my shopping cart, I saw this bit of advertising puffery on the box flap.

Pie boxFlap

For those who can’t read the brown text on brown background, it says,

The Private Selection journey rewards your sense of good taste. Inspired by food artisans and crafted with authentic ingredients and tantalizing recipes, each private selection offering is sure to feed your passion for gourmet foods.

Well, that certainly is enticing. Now I really want to read the ingredients, but I can’t of course because they are on the bottom of the box and I certainly don’t want flip the box over while the pie is still in it. I could hold the box over my head, but then I would look like a dork. Not that it’s ever stopped me before.

After I get home, I open the box and have some pie.. Then I flip the box over and look at the ingredients. Check out the list of authentic ingredients for the pie shine. Pretty tantalizing. Yum, gourmet foods just like mom used to make.

Pie boxBack

For those of you who aren’t familiar, pie shine is what makes the top crust of a pie shiny. It is traditionally made from egg white. (One egg white can shine about four or five pies.) I figured that Kroger would add some stabilizers and preservatives to the egg white to ensure consistency in a commercial bakery setting, but apparently not. If you can’t read the small ALL CAPITALS text in the picture above, the ingredients used by Kroger are,

Water, soy protein, canola oil, datem, methylparaben and propylparaben and sodium benzoate and mixed tocopherols (preservatives), caramel color, modified cellulose gum, artificial flavor, disodium phosphate, corn syrup, pectin, citric acid, yellow 6, maltodextrin, sodium alginate, soy lecithin, silicon dioxide, mono- and diglycerides.

My guess is that egg whites have too much variability in color and viscosity, are too expensive, and spoil too quickly. In comparison, the ingredients used in Kroger’s pie shine are cheap and will never spoil because no microorganism would touch it. Incidentally, if you are not familiar with datem, it is an abbreviation for diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides.

So a few rules for product packaging designers:

1. If you want people to actually read your copy, don’t use low contrast colors (like brown text on a brown background)

2. You should read your advertising copy in the context of the actual product so you don’t make ridiculous claims

3. If you want people to actually take time to read your copy, don’t use ALL CAPS. (Although in this case, you don’t want people to read ingredient list.)

Detailed instructions please

My other encounter with weird packaging is for a product called Caulk Saver. This handy tool plugs the end of a tube of caulk between uses and keeps the tip from getting clogged with hard caulk. I own several. The front of the package is shown below. I like how the photograph behind the actual tool clearly shows how it works. Very clever.


The folks at Caulk Saver love their product so much that they posted a 3 minute long video on YouTube. You can never oversell.


Tell me more! Video still courtesy of Caulk Saver

However, it’s the back of the package where the real weirdness appears. There you will see a picture that shows that the tip of the plug can be cut to fit a caulk tube as you use it up. The caption reads “Cut stem wherever necessary for tool to fit.”


Above the illustration is a long paragraph of text. If you cannot read the text in the photograph, it says,

Important: There may come a time when you have an inch or two of product left in the tube and the tool will not fit all the way in, due to the plunger that forces the product out. At this time, cut the stem off of the tool wherever necessary for the tool to fit properly. Turn the tool 3 or 4 times into the stem of container to seal the container and your product will stay fresh.

This looks like it was written by a frustrated novelist. I guess everyone who has ever worked as an advertising copywriter (including me) wants to believe that engaging text can always improve product packaging. I think the packaging would be less cluttered if the caption were reworded to read “If your Caulk Saver is too long to fit in the tube, just cut off the stem” and eliminate the entire paragraph above it.

But really. If you only have an inch of caulk left in the tube, use it up or throw it away. Life is too short to spend time keeping track of small quantities of old caulk.

by George Taniwaki

Two weeks ago, I posted a blog entry with an update on advances in artificial organs. I try not to cover a topic in my blog too frequently, so as to not overemphasize any one area of research. Thus, I  wasn’t planning to write about regenerative medicine again for several months. However, last week an exciting paper was published and I’ve decided not to put it in my pile for discussion later.

Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston have created a functioning  kidney and transplanted it into a rat, where it began making urine. The process is described in detail in Nature Medicine May 2013 (subscription required) and summarized in The New York Times Apr 2013.

The bioengineered kidney starts with a kidney from a rat cadaver. The kidney is perfused with detergent to remove the kidney cells to leave behind a scaffold called an extracellular matrix. One of the authors of the current study is Dr. Harald Ott, who was one of the developers of this decellularization process while at the University of Minnesota. (His decellularization process is described in an Aug 2010 blog post).

In previous research into constructing an artificial kidney, the decellularization process caused severe damage to the vascular, glomerular, and tubular structures. In the MGH process, much lower pressures were used to better preserve these important structures.

Further, previous research made no attempt to repair these structures after decellularization. The group at MGH seeded the kidney scaffold with a small number of human epithelial stem cells. These cells can grow to repair the blood vessels, glomeruli, and tubules. (See the Apr 2013 blog post for a more controlled way to form blood vessels and tubules using a 3D printer.)

The MGH group then seeded the kidney scaffold with newborn rat kidney cells by perfusing it with a whole-organ culture (see image below). After several days, the kidney was able to produce urine at about 10% of the efficiency of a biological rat kidney.

As a final test, the kidney was transplanted into a live rat where it continued to work.


Bioengineered rat kidney incubating in whole-organ culture. Photo courtesy of MGH

This is a first successful attempt to create a working artificial kidney. It is a logical next step based on knowledge gained from earlier experiments, but it is still a remarkable achievement. Several hurdles must be overcome to turn it into a possible therapy.

First, the incubation process must be perfected to allow the bioengineered kidneys to perform for extended periods of time (hopefully for the normal lifespan of the animal) after transplant. Often, transplanted organs can suffer damage called reperfusion injury once they are connected to the living blood supply.

Second, the efficiency of the kidney needs to be significantly increased above the current 10%. The goal would be to have one or two artificial kidneys able to supply the capacity needed for normal function. This may require applying the correct cell type to each area of the kidney rather than bathing the entire kidney in a mixed culture.

Third, the kidneys need to be scaled up to human size. Larger mammals have about the same size cells as smaller ones. So large mammals, such as humans, have several thousand-fold more cells than smaller ones. Each cell needs to have access to blood from capillaries. Thus, large mammals have much more complex branching in their circulatory network than smaller mammals. Similarly, large mammal kidneys have many more tubules than those in smaller mammals.

Finally, another issue in creating human-sized artificial kidneys is the limited availability of human-sized kidneys for creating the extracellular matrix. As readers of this blog know, there is a severe shortage of deceased donor human kidneys available for transplant. However, this may be overcome by the fact that the kidneys used as scaffolds do not need to be of transplant quality. The supply of scaffolds may be increased further by using pig kidneys, which are a similar size to human ones and readily available.

If these problems can be solved, and I believe they can, then the first clinical trials of artificial kidneys may begin within the next few years.

An interview with Dr. Ott is available on YouTube.


Harald Ott discusses artificial organs. Video still from Nature Medicine


In addition to not wanting to run a story on regenerative medicine so soon because of topic fatigue, I was also worried about the impact the story may have on kidney patients and potential donors.

If you are a kidney patient, do not let the rapid progress in the development of artificial kidneys deter you from seeking a live donor. You want to take control of your medical outcome and improve your quality of life now, not wait for a scientific breakthrough some day in the future.

Similarly, if you are considering becoming an organ donor, don’t turn down the opportunity to give the gift of life. People need transplants now.

There will be many clinical trials before the enough data is submitted to the FDA for it to approve implanting artificial kidneys in humans. It may be over a decade before the first products come to market.

By George Taniwaki

As often mentioned in this blog, there is a severe shortage of transplantable organs available for patients who need them. In the short-term, the only solution is to increase the number of donors, both living and deceased. But a possible long-term solution is to create artificial organs, also called regenerative medicine.

In a Mar 2011 blog post and an Aug 2010 blog post, I discussed various processes for making the substrates for artificial organs. These include using existing scaffolds from human or animal organs, printing the scaffold using 3D printers, or building the scaffolds from microbeads.

However, a kidney (and any other organ) is more than just a scaffold. The scaffold has to be filled with cells. The cells have to be the right kinds and have to be arranged in the correct order. And the cells have to be connected to a network of blood vessels that transports blood, tubules that carry away the urine, nerves that monitor and control the organ, and other systems that connect the organ to the rest of the body.

Blood vessels and tubules

One advance described in Los Angeles Times Jul 2012 is a novel technique for creating the blood vessels and tubules. The work was led by Jordan Miller and Christopher Chen, both of University of Pennsylvania’s Tissue Microfabrication Lab. A network of filaments is printed using a 3D printer. Instead of plastic that is commonly used in these printers use, the filaments are made from a special combination of glass-like sugars. The filaments are then coated with a polymer that acts as the scaffold for the endothelial cells that will become the blood vessels and tubules. After the cells are added, the sugar is washed away with water leaving a hollow tube. A great video explaining the process is available on YouTube.


Still image of Rep Rap 3D printer producing sugar filaments. Courtesy of Univ. of Pennsylvania

Creating organs without stem cells

So far, in these discussions of the use of 3D printers, the structures created have been in the order of 100 micron to 1 millimeter in scale. A recent advance in 3D printing of organic materials appears in Science Apr 2013 (subscription required). Gabriel Villar and Hagan Bayley of University of Oxford have created self-organizing shapes using droplets of aqueous material surrounded in a lipid film. Currently, each droplet is 50 microns in diameter. This is about 5 times larger than living cells, but the researchers believe there is no reason why future printers could not make smaller drops. Thus, entire “organs” could be made from these drops. A press release describes the process. Additional pictures showing layered droplets are available in the Los Angeles Times Apr 2013.

Two videos in the press release show how a network of drops with different electrical properties could be self-organizing. One is a computer animation, the other is an actual stop motion of a flat sheet of droplets curling into a sphere over a span of 348 minutes (just under 6 hours).


Still image of  droplet network forming a sphere. Courtesy of University of Oxford