Tag Archives: Bill Gates

Could CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) be weaponized?

On the occasion of an American team’s recent publication of research where they edited the germline (embryos), I produced a three-part series about CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), sometimes referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, (links offered at end of this post).

Somewhere in my series, there’s a quote about how CRISPR could be used as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ and it seems this has been a hot topic for the last year or so as James Revill, research fellow at the University of Sussex, references in his August 31, 2017 essay on theconversation.com (h/t phys.org August 31, 2017 news item), Note: Links have been removed,

The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. This follows a “CRISPR craze” over the last couple of years, with the number of academic publications on the topic growing steadily.

There are good reasons for the widespread attention to CRISPR. The technique allows scientists to “cut and paste” DNA more easily than in the past. It is being applied to a number of different peaceful areas, ranging from cancer therapies to the control of disease carrying insects.

Some of these applications – such as the engineering of mosquitoes to resist the parasite that causes malaria – effectively involve tinkering with ecosystems. CRISPR has therefore generated a number of ethical and safety concerns. Some also worry that applications being explored by defence organisations that involve “responsible innovation in gene editing” may send worrying signals to other states.

Concerns are also mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”. More recently, in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could “open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential”.

An annual worldwide threat assessment report of the US intelligence community in February 2016 argued that the broad availability and low cost of the basic ingredients of technologies like CRISPR makes it particularly concerning.

A Feb. 11, 2016 news item on sciencemagazine.org offers a précis of some of the reactions while a February 9, 2016 article by Antonio Regalado for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review delves into the matter more deeply,

Genome editing is a weapon of mass destruction.

That’s according to James Clapper, [former] U.S. director of national intelligence, who on Tuesday, in the annual worldwide threat assessment report of the U.S. intelligence community, added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.”

Gene editing refers to several novel ways to alter the DNA inside living cells. The most popular method, CRISPR, has been revolutionizing scientific research, leading to novel animals and crops, and is likely to power a new generation of gene treatments for serious diseases (see “Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR’s Monster Year”).

It is gene editing’s relative ease of use that worries the U.S. intelligence community, according to the assessment. “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications,” the report said.

The choice by the U.S. spy chief to call out gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction, or WMD, surprised some experts. It was the only biotechnology appearing in a tally of six more conventional threats, like North Korea’s suspected nuclear detonation on January 6 [2016], Syria’s undeclared chemical weapons, and new Russian cruise missiles that might violate an international treaty.

The report is an unclassified version of the “collective insights” of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and half a dozen other U.S. spy and fact-gathering operations.

Although the report doesn’t mention CRISPR by name, Clapper clearly had the newest and the most versatile of the gene-editing systems in mind. The CRISPR technique’s low cost and relative ease of use—the basic ingredients can be bought online for $60—seems to have spooked intelligence agencies.

….

However, one has to be careful with the hype surrounding new technologies and, at present, the security implications of CRISPR are probably modest. There are easier, cruder methods of creating terror. CRISPR would only get aspiring biological terrorists so far. Other steps, such as growing and disseminating biological weapons agents, would typically be required for it to become an effective weapon. This would require additional skills and places CRISPR-based biological weapons beyond the reach of most terrorist groups. At least for the time being.

A July 5, 2016 opinion piece by Malcolm Dando for Nature argues for greater safeguards,

In Geneva next month [August 2016], officials will discuss updates to the global treaty that outlaws the use of biological weapons. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was the first agreement to ban an entire class of weapons, and it remains a crucial instrument to stop scientific research on viruses, bacteria and toxins from being diverted into military programmes.

The BWC is the best route to ensure that nations take the biological-weapons threat seriously. Most countries have struggled to develop and introduce strong and effective national programmes — witness the difficulty the United States had in agreeing what oversight system should be applied to gain-of-function experiments that created more- dangerous lab-grown versions of common pathogens.

As scientific work advances — the CRISPR gene-editing system has been flagged as the latest example of possible dual-use technology — this treaty needs to be regularly updated. This is especially important because it has no formal verification system. Proposals for declarations, monitoring visits and inspections were vetoed by the United States in 2001, on the grounds that such verification threatened national security and confidential business information.

Even so, issues such as the possible dual-use threat from gene-editing systems will not be easily resolved. But we have to try. Without the involvement of the BWC, codes of conduct and oversight systems set up at national level are unlikely to be effective. The stakes are high, and after years of fumbling, we need strong international action to monitor and assess the threats from the new age of biological techniques.

Revill notes the latest BWC agreement and suggests future directions,

This convention is imperfect and lacks a way to ensure that states are compliant. Moreover, it has not been adequately “tended to” by its member states recently, with the last major meeting unable to agree a further programme of work. Yet it remains the cornerstone of an international regime against the hostile use of biology. All 178 state parties declared in December of 2016 their continued determination “to exclude completely the possibility of the use of (biological) weapons, and their conviction that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of humankind”.

These states therefore need to address the hostile potential of CRISPR. Moreover, they need to do so collectively. Unilateral national measures, such as reasonable biological security procedures, are important. However, preventing the hostile exploitation of CRISPR is not something that can be achieved by any single state acting alone.

As such, when states party to the convention meet later this year, it will be important to agree to a more systematic and regular review of science and technology. Such reviews can help with identifying and managing the security risks of technologies such as CRISPR, as well as allowing an international exchange of information on some of the potential benefits of such technologies.

Most states supported the principle of enhanced reviews of science and technology under the convention at the last major meeting. But they now need to seize the opportunity and agree on the practicalities of such reviews in order to prevent the convention being left behind by developments in science and technology.

Experts (military, intelligence, medical, etc.) are not the only ones concerned about CRISPR according to a February 11, 2016 article by Sharon Begley for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Most Americans oppose using powerful new technology to alter the genes of unborn babies, according to a new poll — even to prevent serious inherited diseases.

They expressed the strongest disapproval for editing genes to create “designer babies” with enhanced intelligence or looks.

But the poll, conducted by STAT and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people have mixed, and apparently not firm, views on emerging genetic techniques. US adults are almost evenly split on whether the federal government should fund research on editing genes before birth to keep children from developing diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.

“They’re not against scientists trying to improve [genome-editing] technologies,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard’s Chan School, perhaps because they recognize that one day there might be a compelling reason to use such technologies. An unexpected event, such as scientists “eliminating a terrible disease” that a child would have otherwise inherited, “could change people’s views in the years ahead,” Blendon said.

But for now, he added, “people are concerned about editing the genes of those who are yet unborn.”

A majority, however, wants government regulators to approve gene therapy to treat diseases in children and adults.

The STAT-Harvard poll comes as scientists and policy makers confront the ethical, social, and legal implications of these revolutionary tools for changing DNA. Thanks to a technique called CRISPR-Cas9, scientists can easily, and with increasing precision, modify genes through the genetic analog of a computer’s “find and replace” function.

I find it surprising that there’s resistance to removing diseases found in the germline (embryos). When they were doing public consultations on nanotechnology, the one area where people tended to be quite open to research was health and medicine. Where food was concerned however, people had far more concerns.

If you’re interested in the STAT-Harvard poll, you can find it here. As for James Revill, he has written a more substantive version of this essay as a paper, which is available here.

On a semi-related note, I found STAT (statnews.com) to be a quite interesting and accessibly written online health science journal. Here’s more from the About Us page (Note: A link has been removed),

What’s STAT all about?
STAT is a national publication focused on finding and telling compelling stories about health, medicine, and scientific discovery. We produce daily news, investigative articles, and narrative projects in addition to multimedia features. We tell our stories from the places that matter to our readers — research labs, hospitals, executive suites, and political campaigns.

Why did you call it STAT?
In medical parlance, “stat” means important and urgent, and that’s what we’re all about — quickly and smartly delivering good stories. Read more about the origins of our name here.

Who’s behind the new publication?
STAT is produced by Boston Globe Media. Our headquarters is located in Boston but we have bureaus in Washington, New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was started by John Henry, the owner of Boston Globe Media and the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox. Rick Berke is executive editor.

So is STAT part of The Boston Globe?
They’re distinct properties but the two share content and complement one another.

Is it free?
Much of STAT is free. We also offer STAT Plus, a premium subscription plan that includes exclusive reporting about the pharmaceutical and biotech industries as well as other benefits. Learn more about it here.

Who’s working for STAT?
Some of the best-sourced science, health, and biotech journalists in the country, as well as motion graphics artists and data visualization specialists. Our team includes talented writers, editors, and producers capable of the kind of explanatory journalism that complicated science issues sometimes demand.

Who’s your audience?
You. Even if you don’t work in science, have never stepped foot in a hospital, or hated high school biology, we’ve got something for you. And for the lab scientists, health professionals, business leaders, and policy makers, we think you’ll find coverage here that interests you, too. The world of health, science, and medicine is booming and yielding fascinating stories. We explore how they affect us all.

….

As promised, here are the links to my three-part series on CRISPR,

Part 1 opens the series with a basic description of CRISPR and the germline research that occasioned the series along with some of the other (non-weapon) ethical issues and patent disputes that are arising from this new technology. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

Part 2 covers three critical responses to the reporting and between them describe the technology in more detail and the possibility of ‘designer babies’.  CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Part 3 is all about public discussion or, rather, the lack of and need for according to a couple of social scientists. Informally, there is some discussion via pop culture and Joelle Renstrom notes although she is focused on the larger issues touched on by the television series, Orphan Black and as I touch on in my final comments. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

Finally, I hope to stumble across studies from other countries about how they are responding to the possibilities presented by CRISPR/Cas9 so that I can offer a more global perspective than this largely US perspective. At the very least, it would be interesting to find it if there differences.

Canada and its Vancouver tech scene gets a boost

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been running around attending tech events both in the Vancouver area (Canada) and in Seattle these last few days (May 17 and May 18, 2017). First he attended the Microsoft CEO Summit as noted in a May 11, 2017 news release from the Prime Minister’s Office (Note: I have a few comments about this performance and the Canadian tech scene at the end of this post),

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today [May 11, 2017] announced that he will participate in the Microsoft CEO Summit in Seattle, Washington, on May 17 and 18 [2017], to promote the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, encourage investment in the Canadian technology sector, and draw global talent to Canada.

This year’s summit, under the theme “The CEO Agenda: Navigating Change,” will bring together more than 150 chief executive officers. While at the Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau will showcase Budget 2017’s Innovation and Skills Plan and demonstrate how Canada is making it easier for Canadian entrepreneurs and innovators to turn their ideas into thriving businesses.

Prime Minister Trudeau will also meet with Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Quote

“Canada’s greatest strength is its skilled, hard-working, creative, and diverse workforce. Canada is recognized as a world leader in research and development in many areas like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 3D programming. Our government will continue to help Canadian businesses grow and create good, well-paying middle class jobs in today’s high-tech economy.”
— Rt. Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Quick Facts

  • Canada-U.S. bilateral trade in goods and services reached approximately $882 billion in 2016.
  • Nearly 400,000 people and over $2 billion-worth of goods and services cross the Canada-U.S. border every day.
  • Canada-Washington bilateral trade was $19.8 billion in 2016. Some 223,300 jobs in the State of Washington depend on trade and investment with Canada. Canada is among Washington’s top export destinations.

Associated Link

Here’s a little more about the Microsoft meeting from a May 17, 2017 article by Alan Boyle for GeekWire.com (Note: Links have been removed),

So far, this year’s Microsoft CEO Summit has been all about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s talk today, but there’s been precious little information available about who else is attending – and Trudeau may be one of the big reasons why.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates created the annual summit back in 1997, to give global business leaders an opportunity to share their experiences and learn about new technologies that will have an impact on business in the future. The event’s attendee list is kept largely confidential, as is the substance of the discussions.

This year, Microsoft says the summit’s two themes are “trust in technology” (as in cybersecurity, international hacking, privacy and the flow of data) and “the race to space” (as in privately funded space efforts such as Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture).

Usually, Microsoft lists a few folks who are attending the summit on the company’s Redmond campus, just to give a sense of the event’s cachet. For example, last year’s headliners included Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson (who is now the Trump administration’s secretary of state)

This year, however, the spotlight has fallen almost exclusively on the hunky 45-year-old Trudeau, the first sitting head of government or state to address the summit. Microsoft isn’t saying anything about the other 140-plus VIPs attending the discussions. “Out of respect for the privacy of our guests, we are not providing any additional information,” a Microsoft spokesperson told GeekWire via email.

Even Trudeau’s remarks at the summit are hush-hush, although officials say he’s talking up Canada’s tech sector.  …

Laura Kane’s May 18, 2017 article for therecord.com provides a little more information about Trudeau’s May 18, 2017 activities in Washington state,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his efforts to promote Canada’s technology sector to officials in Washington state on Thursday [May 18, 2017], meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee a day after attending the secretive Microsoft CEO Summit.

Trudeau and Inslee discussed, among other issues, the development of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an initiative that aims to strengthen technology industry ties between British Columbia and Washington.

The pair also spoke about trade and investment opportunities and innovation in the energy sector, said Trudeau’s office. In brief remarks before the meeting, the prime minister said Washington and Canada share a lot in common.

But protesters clad in yellow hazardous material suits that read “Keystone XL Toxic Cleanup Crew” gathered outside the hotel to criticize Trudeau’s environmental record, arguing his support of pipelines is at odds with any global warming promises he has made.

Later that afternoon, Trudeau visited Electronic Arts (a US games company with offices in the Vancouver area) for more tech talk as Stephanie Ip notes in her May 18, 2017 article for The Vancouver Sun,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Metro Vancouver Thursday [may 18, 2017] to learn from local tech and business leaders how the federal government can boost B.C.’s tech sector.

The roundtable discussion was organized by the Vancouver Economic Commission and hosted in Burnaby at Electronic Arts’ Capture Lab, where the video game company behind the popular FIFA, Madden and NHL franchises records human movement to add more realism to its digital characters. Representatives from Amazon, Launch Academy, Sony Pictures, Darkhorse 101 Pictures and Front Fundr were also there.

While the roundtable was not open to media, Trudeau met beforehand with media.

“We’re going to talk about how the government can be a better partner or better get out of your way in some cases to allow you to continue to grow, to succeed, to create great opportunities to allow innovation to advance success in Canada and to create good jobs for Canadians and draw in people from around the world and continue to lead the way in the world,” he said.

“Everything from clean tech, to bio-medical advances, to innovation in digital economy — there’s a lot of very, very exciting things going on”

Comments on the US tech sector and the supposed Canadian tech sector

I wonder at all the secrecy. As for the companies mentioned as being at the roundtable, you’ll notice a preponderance of US companies with Launch Academy and Front Fundr (which is not a tech company but a crowdfunding equity company) supplying Canadian content. As for Darkhorse 101 Pictures,  I strongly suspect (after an online search) it is part of Darkhorse Comics (as US company) which has an entertainment division.

Perhaps it didn’t seem worthwhile to mention the Canadian companies? In that case, that’s a sad reflection on how poorly we and our media support our tech sector.

In fact, it seems Trudeau’s version of the Canadian technology sector is for us to continue in our role as a branch plant remaining forever in service of the US economy or at least the US tech sector which may be experiencing some concerns with the US Trump administration and what appears to be an increasingly isolationist perspective with regard to trade and immigration. It’s a perspective that the tech sector, especially the entertainment component, can ill afford.

As for the Cascadia Innovation Corridor mentioned in the Prime Minister’s news release and in Kane’s article, I have more about that in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting about the Cascadia Data Analytics Cooperative.

I noticed he mentioned clean tech as an area of excitement. Well, we just lost a significant player not to the US this time but to the EU (European Union) or more specifically, Germany. (There’ll be more about that in an upcoming post.)

I’m glad to see that Trudeau remains interested in Canadian science and technology but perhaps he could concentrate on new ways of promoting sectoral health rather than relying on the same old thing.

New Wave and its non-shrimp shrimp

I received a news release from a start-up company, New Wave Foods, which specializes in creating plant-based seafood. The concept looks very interesting and sci fi (Lois McMaster Bujold, and I’m sure others, has featured vat-grown meat and fish in her novels). Apparently, Google has already started using some of the New Wave product in its employee cafeteria. Here’s more from the July 19, 2016 New Wave Foods news release,

New Wave Foods announced today that it has successfully opened a seed round aimed at developing seafood that is healthier for humans and the planet. Efficient Capacity kicked off the round and New Crop Capital provided additional funding.

New Wave Foods uses plant-based ingredients, such as red algae, to engineer new edible materials that replicate the taste and texture of fish and shellfish while improving their nutritional profiles. Its first product, which has already been served in Google’s cafeterias, will be a truly sustainable shrimp. Shrimp is the nation’s most popular seafood, currently representing more than a quarter of the four billion pounds of fish and shellfish consumed by Americans annually. For each pound of shrimp caught, up to 15 pounds of other animals, including endangered dolphins, turtles, and sharks, die.

The market for meat analogs is expected to surpass $5 billion by 2020, and savvy investors are increasingly taking notice. In recent years, millions in venture capital has flowed into plant-based alternatives to animal foods from large food processors and investors like Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest businessman.

“The astounding scale of our consumption of sea animals is decimating ocean ecosystems through overfishing, massive death through bycatch, water pollution, carbon emissions, derelict fishing gear, mangrove deforestation, and more,” said New Wave Foods co-founder and CEO Dominique Barnes. “Shrimping is also fraught with human rights abuses and slave labor, so we’re pleased to introduce a product that is better for people, the planet, and animals.”

Efficient Capacity is an investment fund that advises and invests in companies worldwide. Efficient Capacity partners have founded or co-founded more than ten companies and served as advisors or directors to dozens of others.

New Crop Capital is a specialized private venture capital fund that provides early-stage investments to companies that develop “clean,” (i.e., cultured) and plant-based meat, dairy, and egg products or facilitate the promotion and sale of such products.

The current round of investments follows investments from SOS Ventures via IndieBio, an accelerator group funding and building biotech startups. IndieBio companies use technology to solve our culture’s most challenging problems, such as feeding a growing population sustainably. Along with investment, IndieBio offers its startups resources such as lab space and mentorship to help take an idea to a product.

Along with its funding round, New Wave Foods announced the appointment of John Wiest as COO. Wiest brings more than 15 years of senior management experience in food and consumer products, including animal-based seafood companies, to the company. As an executive and consultant, Wiest has helped dozens of food ventures develop new products, expand distribution channels, and create strategic partnerships.

New Wave Foods, founded in 2015, is a leader in plant-based seafood that is healthier and better for the environment. New Wave products are high in clean nutrients and deliver a culinary experience consumers expect without the devastating environmental impact of commercial fishing. Co-founder and CEO Dominique Barnes holds a master’s in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and co-founder and CTO Michelle Wolf holds a bachelor’s in materials science and engineering and a master’s in biomedical engineering. New Wave Foods’ first products will reach consumers as early as Q4 2016.

I found a February 5, 2016 review article about the plant-based shrimp written by Ariel Schwartz for Tech Insider (Note: A link has been removed),

… after trying a lab-made “shrimp” made of plant proteins and algae, I’d consider giving it up the real thing. Maybe others will too.

The shrimp I ate came from New Wave Foods, a startup that just graduated from biotech startup accelerator IndieBio. When I first met New Wave’s founders in the fall of 2015, they had been working for eight weeks at IndieBio’s San Francisco lab. …

Barnes and Wolf [marine conservationist Dominique Barnes and materials scientist Michelle Wolf ] ultimately figured out a way to use plant proteins, along with the same algae that shrimp eat — the stuff that helps give the crustaceans their color and flavor — to come up with a substitute that has a similar texture, taste, color, and nutritional value.

The fact that New Wave’s product has the same high protein, low fat content as real shrimp is a big source of differentiation from other shrimp substitutes, according to Barnes.

In early February, I finally tried a breaded version of New Wave’s shrimp. Here’s what it looked like:

New Wave Foods Ariel Schwartz/Tech Insider

It was a little hard to judge the taste because of the breading, but the texture was almost perfect. The lab-made shrimp had that springiness and mixture of crunch and chew that you’d expect from the real thing. I could see myself replacing real shrimp with this in some situations.

Whether it could replace shrimp all the time depends on how the product tastes without the breading. “Our ultimate goal is to get to the cocktail shrimp level,” says Barnes.

I’m glad to have stumbled across Ariel Schwartz again as I’ve always enjoyed her writing and it has been a few years.

For the curious, you can check out more of Ariel Schwartz’s work here and find out more about Efficient Capacity in a listing on CrunchBase, New Crop Capital here, SOS Ventures here, IndieBio here. and, of course,  New Wave Foods here.

One final comment, I am not endorsing this company or its products. This is presented as interesting information and, hopefully, I will be hearing more about the company and its products in the future.