THE HUMAN GENE EDITING SUMMIT, CONT’D
Citizens seeking to understand what was decided at last week’s Human Gene Editing Summit might be understandably confused by the contradictions in these headlines:
As I explained here at On Science Blogs last week. what the Summit organizing committee really recommended was a temporary halt on gene editing of human eggs, sperm, or embryos if the intent is to produce a baby. This halt (yes, a moratorium, but not a ban) is intended to provide researchers with time to do preliminary research (including on human eggs, sperm, or embryos) to identify potential safety risks.
The recommendations are just that, recommendations. They have no force except, perhaps, a sort of moral force: the risk that other scientists (and, horrors, journals!) will disapprove of a particular piece of research if it ignores them.
The existing rules covering human gene editing, and there are a lot of them, aren’t going to change much. Which is to say that this research will be permitted and monitored (or not) to whatever extent a country already has research regulations in place.
IN THE U.S., NO TAXPAYER FUNDING FOR GERMLINE EDITING
In the US, that will mean no taxpayer funding can go to gene editing studies on human embryos, even the preliminary kind. That’s because human embryo research with public money has been forbidden for some years, as John Travis noted in his fine summary of the meeting at ScienceInsider.
That rule collides with last week’s recommendations, which encourage gene editing experiments on human eggs and sperm and embryos as long as they are not aimed at producing real babies. Such experiments are the only way to begin to identify risks and dangers in tinkering with the human germline, the cells that can lead to a gene-edited person. They could be done with little offense to bioethics because they can turn to good use the many human embryos, for example discards from fertility clinics, that would otherwise end up in the garbage.
The rule does not, of course, mean that gene editing on human embryos will not be done in the US. The work will be done, underwritten with private money in academic and commercial labs. That’s because there will be demand from prospective parents seeking to avoid children with genetic defects and disease–and, eventually, parents seeking children who are blonder and smarter and taller and possess other enhancements.
No, not tomorrow. But just this week researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children proudly announced what they claim is the first successful use of CRISPR, the relatively cheap and easy gene editing technique and the main focus of last week’s Summit debate, to remove a duplicated gene from a human genome. They employed it in an unusual form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy that is due to gene duplication.
In a press release, the study’s principal investigator made the obligatory declaration: CRISPR “could revolutionize the way we care for patients with currently untreatable genetic conditions.” The release did not emphasize the fact that the work was done in the lab with cells. It was not a cure or treatment in an actual person–although the release certainly trumpeted the sad story of the cell donor, 14 year-old patient Gavriel Rosenfeld.
So definitely not tomorrow. But that is not to say that the Toronto researchers aren’t on to something, along with the growing zillions of other gene editors out there. Don’t doubt for a moment that treatments and cures are on the way.
Consider, for example, the messages being brought to us by Motherboard, which in a series of posts has been viewing CRISPR with alarm. Or, let me be less charitable, in a series of posts aimed at being clickworthy.
Among recent such posts is Kari Paul’s report on a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for DIY CRISPR kits. Donors of at least $130 get a free kit. And for just $5000, the company founder will work with you on “a unique desired trait for your own, personal, original, unique, genetically engineered organism.” I wonder how he is going to deal with the person who wants his own, personal, original, unique, genetically engineered organism to be another person.
Not only fringe sources are alarm-viewers. Politico hired the historian of genetics, Daniel Kevles, to recap his Summit talk. Kevles observed, “the human race today stands at a threshold unlike any in the past: It now possesses tools to reshape its own hereditary capacities, perhaps even to realize the dream of eugenicists that human beings might take charge of their own evolution.” Kevles’s post is mostly his usual review of the eugenics movement of the last century. But he agrees with me (and many others) that changing humanity’s genes has moved from being a state-sponsored goal to a consumer product.
YEAR-END OBSERVATIONS ON NASA AND BREAKTHROUGHS
At about this time nearly every year, I grind my teeth in writerly irritation, often in this space, at Science magazine’s call for votes for the Breakthrough of the Year. Among serious science writers, the term “breakthrough” is scorned. It’s not just a cliché, it’s almost always completely inaccurate.
NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing may not share my shudders at the term breakthrough, but Science’s contest has given him the opportunity to use CRISPR as another way of berating NASA.
The space agency was apparently attempting to stuff the ballot box so that its Pluto expedition could become Science magazine’s Breakthrough this year, winning out over CRISPR. “For NASA to be trying to use social media to tip the scales in a decidedly unscientific online poll is deceptive,” Cowing scolded. “New Horizons will never save a single human life. CRISPR will.”
I thought to myself, From His Post to God’s Ear. And then I thought, Waitaminnit. Wasn’t CRISPR already Science’s Breakthrough of the Year a couple years ago, in 2013? So I checked, and by golly CRISPR came in second that year. So I guess it’s entitled to take another run at first place.
At the top of the 2013 list was cancer immunotherapy. The news this week suggests that the first place may have been well deserved. We have just learned that former President Jimmy Carter’s horrid brain-invading melanoma, which I wrote about here at On Science Blogs last August, has vanished with the help of immunotherapy. Julia Belluz has a terrific explainer on immunotherapy, pros and cons, at Vox.
CRISPR, GOING TO THE DOGS
I’m a little bewildered by the massive media embrace of those seven puppies brought to you by IVF–and perhaps, eventually, by CRISPR. The New York Times even embraced the vilified term “breakthrough.” In both the hed and the text. Aaaaaaargh!
OK, IVF has been a stumbling block in Canis familiaris breeding–especially compared with Homo sap, where the method been successful for many decades. And puppies are adorable. And 7 puppies are, well, adorability perfection. But still.
Mindy Weisberger has resisted letting cuteness swamp her, reporting at LiveScience on the science of this IVF project and why success was a big deal. The paper, open-access at PLOS ONE, mentions possible CRISPR applications in passing.
It seems obvious to me that the first task of gene editors working on C. familiaris should be to undo all the diseases and skeletal damage we’ve visited on our first genetic invention over the years. Especially the appalling distortions and disabilities resulting from the mania for purebred dogs in the last century or so. As Scientific American observed last year, Best in Show, Worst in Health. It’s a moral obligation, don’t you think?
OMG. I just had a horrible thought. What if they use CRISPR to create even more dog deformities?
I’m taking a break from such nightmares, and from On Science Blogs, to tackle my very long ToDo list. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you next year, on January 8.
But first, cats demand equal time.