Monday, November 09, 2015

Creators of Life Worshiped — Prizes to Scientists

Disappointed after decades of searching in vain for life beyond Earth, science journalists have turned their focus to proven success in creating life here on Earth through genetic manipulation known as CRISPR-Cas9.  Not only are Nobel prizes in the offing, but funding sources have opened up, including from billionaire Bill Gates.  Although scientists envision endless possibilities for the potential good, they equally fear the inevitable devastating evil uses of such breakthroughs.
"The gene drive immediately makes the organisms that carry it have the characteristic, and then secondly it causes them to have all their children have the same characteristic."
-- Ethan Bier, Biologist, University of California, San Diego

"If any group or country wanted to develop germ warfare agents, they could use techniques like this.  It would be quite straightforward to make new pathogens this way."
-- Stuart Newman, Biologist, New York Medical College
For background, read Secret Designer Babies via Gene-editing Science and also read Unborn Must Die so Others Can Live, Scientists Say

-- From "Gene editing: Research spurs debate over promise vs. ethics" Lauran Neergaard, Medical Writer, Associated Press 10/11/15

Should we change people’s genes in a way that passes traits to future generations? Beyond medicine, what about the environmental effects if, say, altered mosquitoes escape before we know how to use them?

“We need to try to get the balance right,” said University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Jennifer Doudna. She helped develop new gene-editing technology and hears from desperate families, but urges caution in how it’s eventually used in people.

Laboratories worldwide are embracing a technology to precisely edit genes inside living cells — turning them off or on, repairing or modifying them — like a biological version of cut-and-paste software. . . .

“It’s transforming almost every aspect of biology right now,” said National Institutes of Health genomics specialist Shawn Burgess.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Powerful 'Gene Drive' Can Quickly Change An Entire Species" by Rob Stein, WBEZ-NPR (National Public Radio) 11/5/15

[Biologist Ethan] Bier was stunned by what he saw. . . . His student, Valentino Gantz, had found a way to get brown fruit flies to produce blond-looking offspring most of the time.

Turning fruit flies from brown to yellow might not sound like a major achievement. But it was. It showed that scientists had a very fast and easy way to permanently change an entire species.

The drive is a sequence of DNA that can cause a mutation to be inherited by the offspring of an organism with nearly 100 percent efficiency, regardless of whether it's beneficial for that organism's survival.

By combining it with new genetic editing techniques, scientists are able to drive changes they make quickly through an entire species.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Bill Gates on Revolutionary Tech: CRISPR" by Carlos Watson, Yahoo News 11/9/15

The technology Bill Gates is most excited about: Say hello to gene editing!

. . . CRISPR technology, which is changing how we think about genetics and health. CRISPR technology basically allows for gene editing — it’s like a scapel that can cut out harmful mutations and turn genes on and off. The potential applications range from fighting hereditary disease in people to boosting crop yields to engineering cows without horns, so as to obviate a painful dehorning procedure. The ethical implications have barely been sussed out.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Nobel speculation kicks into high gear" by Chris Cesare, Nature 9/24/15

Nobel prize season is approaching, and scientists and other pundits have begun the annual ritual of speculating — with varying degrees of seriousness — about who will win this year’s awards.

The annual predictions by Thomson Reuters, released this year on 24 September, name more women than ever before: four in total. Among the potential laureates for the chemistry prize are Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who would share the prize for helping to create the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique.

If Doudna and Charpentier won, it would be just three years after they published their seminal paper.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "The Gene Hackers" by Michael Specter, The New Yorker 11/9/15 (November 16, 2015 Issue)

CRISPR has two components. The first is essentially a cellular scalpel that cuts DNA. The other consists of RNA, the molecule most often used to transmit biological information throughout the genome. It serves as a guide, leading the scalpel on a search past thousands of genes until it finds and fixes itself to the precise string of nucleotides it needs to cut. . . .

With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. . . .

Inevitably, the technology will also permit scientists to correct genetic flaws in human embryos. Any such change, though, would infiltrate the entire genome and eventually be passed down to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and every subsequent generation. That raises the possibility, more realistically than ever before, that scientists will be able to rewrite the fundamental code of life, with consequences for future generations that we may never be able to anticipate. Vague fears of a dystopian world, full of manufactured humans, long ago became a standard part of any debate about scientific progress. . . .

Developing any technology as complex and widely used as CRISPR invariably involves contributions from many scientists. Patent fights over claims of discovery and licensing rights are common. [Feng] Zhang, the Broad Institute, and M.I.T. are now embroiled in such a dispute with Jennifer Doudna and the University of California; she is a professor of chemistry and of molecular biology at Berkeley. By 2012, Doudna, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, a medical microbiologist who studies pathogens at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, in Germany, and their lab teams, demonstrated, for the first time, that CRISPR could edit purified DNA. Their paper was published that June. In January of 2013, though, Zhang and George Church, a professor of genetics at both Harvard Medical School and M.I.T., published the first studies demonstrating that CRISPR could be used to edit human cells. Today, patents are generally awarded to the first people to file—in this case, Doudna and Charpentier. But Zhang and the Broad argued that the earlier success with CRISPR had no bearing on whether the technique would work in the complex organisms that matter most to scientists looking for ways to treat and prevent diseases. . . .

CRISPR research is becoming big business: venture-capital firms are competing with one another to invest millions, and any patent holder would have the right to impose licensing fees. Whoever wins stands to make a fortune. Other achievements are also at stake, possibly including a Nobel Prize. . . .

From the moment that manipulating genes became possible, many people, including some of those involved in the experiments, were horrified by the idea of scientists in lab coats rearranging the basic elements of life. . . .

Normally, it takes years for genetic changes to spread through a population. That is because, during sexual reproduction, each of the two versions of any gene has only a fifty per cent chance of being inherited. But a “gene drive”—which is named for its ability to propel genes through populations over many generations—manages to override the traditional rules of genetics. A mutation made by CRISPR on one chromosome can copy itself in every generation, so that nearly all descendants would inherit the change. . . .

While CRISPR will clearly make it possible to alter our DNA, serious risks remain. Jennifer Doudna has been among the most vocal of those calling for caution on what she sees as the inevitable march toward editing human genes. “It’s going to happen,” she told me the first time we met, in her office at Berkeley. “As a research tool, CRISPR could hardly be more valuable—but we are far from the day when it should be used in a clinical setting.” . . .

Until April, the ethical debate over the uses of CRISPR technology in humans was largely theoretical. Then a group at Sun Yat-sen University, in southern China, attempted to repair, in eighty-six human embryos, the gene responsible for betathalassemia, a rare but often fatal blood disorder. If those disease genes, and genes that cause conditions like cystic fibrosis, could be modified successfully in a fertilized egg, the alteration could not only protect a single individual but eventually eliminate the malady from that person’s hereditary lineage. Given enough time, the changes would affect all of humanity. The response to the experiment was largely one of fear and outrage. The Times carried the story under the headline “Chinese Scientists Edit Genes of Human Embryos, Raising Concerns.” . . .

[Doudna] told me that she was constantly amazed by [CRISPR] potential, but when I asked if she had ever wondered whether the powerful new tool might do more harm than good she looked uncomfortable. “I lie in bed almost every night and ask myself that question,” she said. “When I’m ninety, will I look back and be glad about what we have accomplished with this technology? Or will I wish I’d never discovered how it works?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “I have never said this in public, but it will show you where my psyche is,” she said. “I had a dream recently, and in my dream”—she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher—“had come to see me and said, ‘I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.’ So I said, Sure, who is it? It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

To read all of the extremely long article above, CLICK HERE.