Japan approves first human-animal embryo experiments | Nature

A Japanese stem-cell scientist is the first to receive government support to create animal embryos that contain human cells and transplant them into surrogate animals since a ban on the practice was overturned earlier this year.

Hiromitsu Nakauchi, who leads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California, plans to grow human cells in mouse and rat embryos and then transplant those embryos into surrogate animals. Nakauchi's ultimate goal is to produce animals with organs made of human cells that can, eventually, be transplanted into people.

Until March, Japan explicitly forbid the growth of animal embryos containing human cells beyond 14 days or the transplant of such embryos into a surrogate uterus. That month Japan’s education and science ministry issued new guidelines allowing the creation of human-animal embryos that can be transplanted into surrogate animals and brought to term.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02275-3

German Ethics Council: Germline editing “not ethically out of the question” | European Scientist

On Monday, the German Ethics Council made public a 230-page report discussing their current position on human genome manipulation and in particular, germline editing. According to the press release published on 9 May, a few days before the report, “germline interventions currently too risky, but not ethically out of the question”.

The council made up of 26 ethicists, legal scholars, scientists, and other experts unanimously agreed there are no compelling philosophical arguments against altering human germlines, which they write is not “in principle, ethically reprehensible.” […]

The World Health Organization called for the establishment of a global registry of gene editing research on humans last March. And many scientists would now agree, genome-editing in the human germline should not be regulated by the scientific community but by law.

All members agreed “ the human germline is not inviolable”, although not all are in favour of the pursuing germline interventions – some are concerned the possible benefits may not outweigh the potential downsides.

https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/public-health/germline-editing-not-ethically-out-of-the-question/

Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter | MIT Technology Review

Human intelligence is one of evolution’s most consequential inventions. It is the result of a sprint that started millions of years ago, leading to ever bigger brains and new abilities. Eventually, humans stood upright, took up the plow, and created civilization, while our primate cousins stayed in the trees.

Now scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613277/chinese-scientists-have-put-human-brain-genes-in-monkeysand-yes-they-may-be-smarter/

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing | Nature

Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.

We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.

By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.

Scientists Successfully Double the DNA Alphabet | Smithsonianmag.com

In 1953, when scientists conclusively identified DNA’s structure, it was a monumental, Nobel-Prize-winning revelation: four nucleotides, each containing a letter-labeled base, were arranged in a double helix structure. These four bases, or “letters,” form pairs: adenine, A, matches with thymine, T, and cytosine, C, bonds with guanine, G. These pairs are essentially the building blocks of life on Earth; the way in which the pairs are arranged creates the genetic instructions for how proteins are made, which in turn aid in pretty much every critical process that keeps us alive.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has expanded the genetic alphabet by creating synthetic DNA that uses eight letters rather than four, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The new manufactured structure is called "hachimoji DNA," from the Japanese words for "eight" and letter." Creating hachimoji DNA was, as Carl Zimmer writes in The New York Times, “a chemical tour-de-force” for the group led by Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. The advance offers new possibilities in many fields, including medical research and data storage.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-just-doubled-number-letters-dna-alphabet-180971552/

China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced | MIT Technology Review

The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say.

The twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.

“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose lab uncovered a major new role for the CCR5 gene in memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections. 

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” says Silva. He says the exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, and “that is why it should not be done.” 

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/


Scientists Release Controversial Genetically Modified Mosquitoes In High-Security Lab | NPR

Scientists have launched a major new phase in the testing of a controversial genetically modified organism: a mosquito designed to quickly spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species, NPR has learned.

For the first time, researchers have begun large-scale releases of the engineered insects, into a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy.

"This will really be a breakthrough experiment," says Ruth Mueller, an entomologist who runs the lab. "It's a historic moment."

The goal is to see if the mosquitoes could eventually provide a powerful new weapon to help eradicate malaria in Africa, where most cases occur.

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/02/20/693735499/scientists-release-controversial-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-in-high-securit

Ethics in genetic counselling | Journal of Community Genetics

Difficult ethical issues arise for patients and professionals in medical genetics, and often relate to the patient’s family or their social context. Tackling these issues requires sensitivity to nuances of communication and a commitment to clarity and consistency. It also benefits from an awareness of different approaches to ethical theory. Many of the ethical problems encountered in genetics relate to tensions between the wishes or interests of different people, sometimes even people who do not (yet) exist or exist as embryos, either in an established pregnancy or in vitro. Concern for the long-term welfare of a child or young person, or possible future children, or for other members of the family, may lead to tensions felt by the patient (client) in genetic counselling. Differences in perspective may also arise between the patient and professional when the latter recommends disclosure of information to relatives and the patient finds that too difficult, or when the professional considers the genetic testing of a child, sought by parents, to be inappropriate. The expectations of a patient’s community may also lead to the differences in perspective between patient and counsellor. Recent developments of genetic technology permit genome-wide investigations. These have generated additional and more complex data that amplify and exacerbate some pre-existing ethical problems, including those presented by incidental (additional sought and secondary) findings and the recognition of variants currently of uncertain significance, so that reports of genomic investigations may often be provisional rather than definitive. Experience is being gained with these problems but substantial challenges are likely to persist in the long term.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12687-018-0371-7


"Rogue, Crazy": Alarm Over China Scientist's Claim Of Gene-Edited Babies

A Chinese scientist triggered alarm, shock and confusion across the scientific community Monday with the claim that he had edited the DNA of human embryos to create twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, who he said had been born "crying into the world as healthy as any other babies" a few weeks ago.

The controversial experiment, publicized through the media and videos posted online by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China, was criticized by many scientists worldwide as premature and called "rogue human experimentation." More than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment "crazy" in a letter, adding that it dealt a huge blow to the global reputation of Chinese science. Southern University said in a statement it would be investigating the experiment, which appeared to have "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct." 

He's unverified claim came on the eve of an international summit dedicated to discussing the emerging science and ethics around powerful tools that give scientists unprecedented potential to tweak traits and eliminate genetic diseases - but that have raised fears of "designer babies." By editing the DNA of human embryos, scientists change not just the genes in a single person, but all their potential offspring - in effect, altering the human species

https://www.ndtv.com/science/rouge-crazy-experts-concerns-on-chinese-scientist-he-jiankuis-designer-babies-1953810

Exclusive: A new test can predict IVF embryos' risk of having a low IQ | New Scientist

THE prospect of creating intelligent designer babies has been the subject of ethical debate for decades, but we have lacked the ability to actually do it. That may now change, thanks to a new method of testing an embryo’s genes that could soon be available in some IVF clinics in the US, New Scientist can reveal.

The firm Genomic Prediction says it has developed genetic screening tests that can assess complex traits, such as the risk of some diseases and low intelligence, in IVF embryos. The tests haven’t been used yet, but the firm began talks last month with several IVF clinics to provide them to customers.

For intelligence, Genomic Prediction says that it will only offer the option of screening out embryos deemed likely to have “mental disability”. However, the same approach could in future be used to identify embryos with genes that make them more likely to have a high IQ. “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will,” says the firm’s co-founder Stephen Hsu.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032041-900-exclusive-a-new-test-can-predict-ivf-embryos-risk-of-having-a-low-iq

Looking Back with Epperson, Fifty Years Later | NCSE

This past July (2018), I had the pleasure of hosting NCSE Teacher Ambassadors at Georgia Southern for a two-day workshop. During our time together, we shared and explored content and best practices for teaching, covering everything from recent fossil discoveries to how to deal with conflict in the classroom. Early on, Stephanie Keep gave us a quick run-down on the history of evolution education in the United States, including the legal cases that set precedent for science teaching.

One slide featured a black-and-white photograph of a woman I had seen before, but many of our teachers had not. The picture was of Susan Epperson, classroom teacher and advocate. Keep told the assembled teachers to remember that this was all recent history. So recent, she said, that the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a ban on evolution and set precedent for the unconstitutionality of similar laws, is still actively supporting science education today.

https://ncse.com/blog/2018/11/looking-back-with-epperson-fifty-years-later-0018818

Gene drives promise great gains and great dangers - On the extinction of the species

Extinctions are seldom cause for celebration. Humans are wiping out species at a frightening rate, whether hunting them into history or, far more threateningly, damaging the habitats on which they depend. But occasionally, the destruction is warranted. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980, and no one laments the fate of the virus that caused it; campaigns to save the virus that causes polio are thin on the ground. How, then, to think about a new technology that will make driving a species to extinction far easier?

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/11/08/gene-drives-promise-great-gains-and-great-dangers

Effort to Diversify Medical Research Raises Thorny Questions of Race - Scientific American

It’s a summer Saturday morning and more than 160 people are packed into a windowless classroom beneath a Lower Manhattan street. Organizers had distributed the ad for the three-hour event just three weeks earlier. The goal was to gather people who identify as “Asian” on the U.S. census—and nearly everyone in the overcapacity room fits that label.

Attendees, the flyer says, will learn about precision medicine—a health care trend in which treatment and medication are tailored to an individual’s genes, environment and lifestyle. “Why is it that we’re all getting the same blood pressure pill, when it might work really well with one person and not the other?” event leader Colleen Leners asks the audience. Leners is the policy director for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Since mid-May she has been traveling across the country to lead enrollment efforts for a new federal governmentresearch project that is grounded in genetics and aims to overhaul the way health care is delivered.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/effort-to-diversify-medical-research-raises-thorny-questions-of-race/

Editing human embryos 'morally permissible' - BBC News

Should we or shouldn't we be allowed to modify human DNA in future children?

An inquiry into the ethical issues surrounding genetically altering a human embryo has found there is "no absolute reason not to pursue it".

But appropriate measures must be put in place before it becomes UK law, said the report - which calls for further research both medically and socially.

Inquiry chair, Prof Karen Yeung, said: "The implications for society are extensive, profound and long-term."

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-44849034

Report located here: http://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/genome-editing-human-reproduction

Why scientists created a human-chicken hybrid embryo

One of the biggest mysteries of human life is how we develop from a tiny ball of cells into a being with bones, muscle and organs. The process starts inside the mother’s womb shortly after conception, but legal and regulatory restrictions on research involving human embryonic tissue have stymied scientists’ efforts to explain the process.

Now scientists have found a workaround. By transplanting human embryonic cells onto chicken embryos, researchers at Rockefeller University in New York City have created a hybrid embryo that they say will bring insights into fetal development — and perhaps lead to new cures for several diseases — without bumping up against the so-called “14-day rule” that prohibits research on human embryos more than two weeks old.

The popular media blasted the interspecies mash-up, with one headline reading “Half human-half chicken abomination created in US lab," even though no one is talking about creating a race of human-chicken beings. And the scientists defend their work, saying the hybrid embryo will help them understand why some human cells grow into the brain and nervous system, for example, while others form the trunk and limbs.

https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/why-scientists-created-human-chicken-hybrid-embryo-ncna880406

William Saletan: Stop talking about race and IQ. Take it from someone who did.

The race-and-IQ debate is back. The latest round started a few weeks ago when Harvard geneticist David Reich wrote a New York Times op-ed in defense of race as a biological fact. The piece resurfaced Sam Harris’ year-old Waking Up podcast interview with Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, and launched a Twitter debate between Harris and Vox’s Ezra Klein. Klein then responded to Harris and Reich in Vox, Harris fired back, and Andrew Sullivan went after Klein. Two weeks ago, Klein and Harris released a two-hour podcast in which they fruitlessly continued their dispute.

I’ve watched this debate for more than a decade. It’s the same wreck, over and over. A person with a taste for puncturing taboos learns about racial gaps in IQ scores and the idea that they might be genetic. He writes or speaks about it, credulously or unreflectively. Every part of his argument is attacked: the validity of IQ, the claim that it’s substantially heritable, and the idea that races can be biologically distinguished. The offender is denounced as racist when he thinks he’s just defending science against political correctness.

I know what it’s like to be this person because, 11 years ago, I was that person. I saw a comment from Nobel laureate James Watson about the black-white IQ gap, read some journal articles about it, and bought in. That was a mistake. Having made that mistake, I’m in no position to throw stones at Sullivan, Harris, or anyone else. But I am in a position to speak to these people as someone who understands where they’re coming from. I believe I can change their thinking, because I’ve changed mine, and I’m here to make that case to them. And I hope those of you who find this whole subject vile will bear with me as I do.

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/stop-talking-about-race-and-iq-take-it-from-someone-who-did.html

No death and an enhanced life: Is the future transhuman? | Technology | The Guardian

The aims of the transhumanist movement are summed up by Mark O’Connell in his book To Be a Machine, which last week won the Wellcome Book prize. “It is their belief that we can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.”

The idea of technologically enhancing our bodies is not new. But the extent to which transhumanists take the concept is. In the past, we made devices such as wooden legs, hearing aids, spectacles and false teeth. In future, we might useimplants to augment our senses so we can detect infrared or ultraviolet radiation directly or boost our cognitive processes by connecting ourselves to memory chips. Ultimately, by merging man and machine, science will produce humans who have vastly increased intelligence, strength, and lifespans; a near embodiment of gods.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/06/no-death-and-an-enhanced-life-is-the-future-transhuman

Genetic Programmers Are the Next Startup Millionaires - MIT Technology Review

A two-year-old company developing molecular “logic” for cancer treatment has been snapped up for $175 million by Gilead Sciences amid a surge of interest in ways to battle disease using engineered immune cells.

The pricey acquisition of Cell Design Labs, a startup that’s produced no drugs, signals an ongoing acquisition frenzy around one of cancer medicine’s most promising approaches.

Cell Design Labs, founded by University of California, San Francisco, synthetic biologist Wendell Lim, creates “programs” to install inside T cells, the killer cells of the immune system, giving them new abilities. 

Beginning in August, the U.S. approved two novel treatments in which a person’s T cells are genetically reprogrammed to seek and destroy cancer cells.

Known as “CAR-T,” the treatments are both revolutionary and hugely expensive. A single dose is priced at around $500,000 but often results in a cure. Gilead quickly paid $12 billion to acquire Kite Pharma, maker of one of those treatments.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/609726/genetic-programmers-are-the-next-startup-millionaires/

End Canada’s criminal ban on contentious CRISPR gene-editing research, major science group urges | National Post

MONT-TREMBLANT, Que. — It’s one of the most exciting, and controversial, areas of health science today: new technology that can alter the genetic content of cells, potentially preventing inherited disease — or creating genetically enhanced humans.

But Canada is among the few countries in the world where working with the CRISPR gene-editing system on cells whose DNA can be passed down to future generations is a criminal offence, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail.

This week, one major science group announced it wants that changed, calling on the federal government to lift the prohibition and allow researchers to alter the genome of inheritable “germ” cells and embryos.

http://nationalpost.com/health/end-canadas-criminal-ban-on-contentious-crispr-gene-editing-research-major-science-group-urges

Donor organs created by dissolving and rebuilding pig livers | New Scientist

Will we ever be able to grow transplant organs like the heart, lungs and liver on demand? A method that uses pig organs as scaffolding for creating new organs suggests it may be possible.

In an effort to tackle lengthy waiting lists for organ transplants, researchers have been trying several approaches for creating replacement organs. One approach is to grow organs in the lab from stem cells. Another would be to take organs from pigs that have been genetically altered so their cells are more human-like, and less likely to be attacked by a person’s immune system.

Now an in-between method is taking off. The approach starts with an organ from an ordinary pig, but involves dissolving the cells away from it to leave a protein scaffold in the original shape of the organ. This is then reinfused with human cells.

Until now this technique – dubbed “decel/recel” – has been mainly investigated for small or thin structures such as layers of skin because it is hard to dissolve away the inside a large organ. But a new technique is now making that possible, leading a US biotech firm called Miromatrix to announce this month that it has successfully created livers this way.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2151910-donor-organs-created-by-dissolving-and-rebuilding-pig-livers/