Not unexpectedly, CRISPR-Cas9 or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR-associated protein 9 can be dangerous as these scientists note in a July 16, 2018 news item on phys.org,
Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing can cause greater genetic damage in cells than was previously thought. These results create safety implications for gene therapies using CRISPR/Cas9 in the future as the unexpected damage could lead to dangerous changes in some cells.
Reported today (16 July 2018) in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the study also revealed that standard tests for detecting DNA changes miss finding this genetic damage, and that caution and specific testing will be required for any potential gene therapies.
This CRISPR-Cas9 image reminds me of popcorn,
CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 (white) from Staphylococcus aureus based on Protein Database ID 5AXW. Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)[ downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-07-genome-crisprcas9-gene-higher-thought.html#jCp]
CRISPR/Cas9 is one of the newest genome editing tools. It can alter sections of DNA in cells by cutting at specific points and introducing changes at that location. Already extensively used in scientific research, CRISPR/Cas9 has also been seen as a promising way to create potential genome editing treatments for diseases such as HIV, cancer or sickle cell disease. Such therapeutics could inactivate a disease-causing gene, or correct a genetic mutation. However, any potential treatments would have to prove that they were safe.
Previous research had not shown many unforeseen mutations from CRISPR/Cas9 in the DNA at the genome editing target site. To investigate this further the researchers carried out a full systematic study in both mouse and human cells and discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 frequently caused extensive mutations, but at a greater distance from the target site.
The researchers found many of the cells had large genetic rearrangements such as DNA deletions and insertions. These could lead to important genes being switched on or off, which could have major implications for CRISPR/Cas9 use in therapies. In addition, some of these changes were too far away from the target site to be seen with standard genotyping methods.
Prof Allan Bradley, corresponding author on the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “This is the first systematic assessment of unexpected events resulting from CRISPR/Cas9 editing in therapeutically relevant cells, and we found that changes in the DNA have been seriously underestimated before now. It is important that anyone thinking of using this technology for gene therapy proceeds with caution, and looks very carefully to check for possible harmful effects.”
Michael Kosicki, the first author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “My initial experiment used CRISPR/Cas9 as a tool to study gene activity, however it became clear that something unexpected was happening. Once we realised the extent of the genetic rearrangements we studied it systematically, looking at different genes and different therapeutically relevant cell lines, and showed that the CRISPR/Cas9 effects held true.”
The work has implications for how CRISPR/Cas9 is used therapeutically and is likely to re-spark researchers’ interest in finding alternatives to the standard CRISPR/Cas9 method for gene editing.
Prof Maria Jasin, an independent researcher from Memorial Slone Kettering Cancer Centre, New York, who was not involved in the study said: “This study is the first to assess the repertoire of genomic damage arising at a CRISPR/Cas9 cleavage site. While it is not known if genomic sites in other cell lines will be affected in the same way, this study shows that further research and specific testing is needed before CRISPR/Cas9 is used clinically.”
It seems this news has affected the CRISPR market. From a July 16, 2018 article by Cale Guthrie Weissman for Fast Company,
… CRISPR could unknowingly delete or alter non-targeted genes, which could lead to myriad unintended consequences. This is especially frightening, since the technology is going to be used in human clinical trials.
Meanwhile, other scientists working with CRISPR are trying to downplay the findings, telling STAT [a life sciences and business journalism website] that there have been no reported adverse effects similar to what the study describes. The news, however, has brought about a market reaction–at least three publicly traded companies that focus on CRISPR-based therapies are in stock nosedive. Crispr Therapeutics is down by over 6%; Editas fell by over 3%; and Intellia Therapeutics dropped by over 5%. [emphasis mine]
Gaetan Burgio (geneticist, Australian National University) in a July 16, 2018 essay on phys.org (originating from The Conversation) suggests some calm (Note: Links have been removed),
But a new study has called into question the precision of the technique [CRISPR gene editing technology].
The hope for gene editing is that it will be able to cure and correct diseases. To date, many successes have been reported, including curing deafness in mice, and in altering cells to cure cancer.
Some 17 clinical trials in human patients are registered [emphasis mine] testing gene editing on leukaemias, brain cancers and sickle cell anaemia (where red blood cells are misshaped, causing them to die). Before implementing CRISPR technology in clinics to treat cancer or congenital disorders, we must address whether the technique is safe and accurate.
There are a few options for getting around this problem. One option is to isolate the cells we wish to edit from the body and reinject only the ones we know have been correctly edited.
For example, lymphocytes (white blood cells) that are crucial to killing cancer cells could be taken out of the body, then modified using CRISPR to heighten their cancer-killing properties. The DNA of these cells could be sequenced in detail, and only the cells accurately and specifically gene-modified would be selected and delivered back into the body to kill the cancer cells.
While this strategy is valid for cells we can isolate from the body, some cells, such as neurons and muscles, cannot be removed from the body. These types of cells might not be suitable for gene editing using Cas9 scissors.
Fortunately, researchers have discovered other forms of CRISPR systems that don’t require the DNA to be cut. Some CRISPR systems only cut the RNA, not the DNA (DNA contains genetic instructions, RNA convey the instructions on how to synthesise proteins).
As RNA [ribonucleic acid] remains in our cells only for a specific period of time before being degraded, this would allow us to control the timing and duration of the CRISPR system delivery and reverse it (so the scissors are only functional for a short period of time).
This was found to be successful for dementia in mice. Similarly, some CRISPR systems simply change the letters of the DNA, rather than cutting them. This was successful for specific mutations causing diseases such as hereditary deafness in mice.
I agree with Burgio’s conclusion (not included here) that we have a lot more to learn and I can’t help wondering why there are 17 registered human clinical trials at this point.
A new delivery system for introducing gene-editing technology into cells could help safely and efficiently correct disease-causing mutations in patients.
The system, developed by KAUST scientists, is the first to use sponge-like ensembles of metal ions and organic molecules to coat the molecular components of the precision DNA-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, allowing efficient release of the genome-editing machinery inside the cell.
“This method presents an easy and economically feasible route to improve on the delivery problems that accompany RNA-based therapeutic approaches,” says Niveen Khashab, the associate professor of chemical sciences at KAUST who led the study. “This may permit such formulations to be eventually used for treating genetic diseases effectively in the future.”
CRISPR/Cas9 has a double delivery problem: For the gene-editing technology to work like a molecular Swiss Army knife, both a large protein (the Cas9 cutting enzyme) and a highly charged RNA component (the guide RNA used for DNA targeting) must each get from the outside of the cell into the cytoplasm and finally into the nucleus, all without getting trapped in the tiny intracellular bubbles that are known as endosomes.
To solve this problem, Khashab and her lab turned to a nano-sized type of porous material known as a zeolitic imidazolate framework, which forms a cage-like structure into which other molecules can be placed. The researchers encapsulated the Cas9 protein and guide RNA in this material and then introduced the resulting nanoparticles into hamster cells.
The encapsulated CRISPR-Cas9 constructs were not toxic to the cells. And because particles in the coating material become positively charged when absorbed into endosomes, they caused these membrane-bound bubbles to burst, freeing the CRISPR-Cas9 machinery to travel to the nucleus, home to the cell’s genome. There the gene-editing technology could get to work.
Using a guide RNA designed to target a gene that caused the cells to glow green under fluorescent light, Khashab and her team showed that they could reduce the expression of this gene by 37 percent over four days with their technology. “These cage-like structures are biocompatible and can be triggered on demand, making them smart options to overcome delivery problems of genetic materials and proteins,” says the study’s first author Shahad Alsaiari, a Ph.D. student in Khashab’s lab.
The researchers’ plan to test their system in human cells and in mice, and eventually, they hope, in clinical trials.
Utilizing an unsuspected activity of the CRISPR-Cas12a protein, researchers created a simple diagnostic system called DETECTR to analyze cells, blood, saliva, urine and stool to detect genetic mutations, cancer and antibiotic resistance and also diagnose bacterial and viral infections. The scientists discovered that when Cas12a binds its double-stranded DNA target, it indiscriminately chews up all single-stranded DNA. They then created reporter molecules attached to single-stranded DNA to signal when Cas12a finds its target.
CRISPR-Cas12a, one of the DNA-cutting proteins revolutionizing biology today, has an unexpected side effect that makes it an ideal enzyme for simple, rapid and accurate disease diagnostics.
Cas12a, discovered in 2015 and originally called Cpf1, is like the well-known Cas9 protein that UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier turned into a powerful gene-editing tool in 2012.
CRISPR-Cas9 has supercharged biological research in a mere six years, speeding up exploration of the causes of disease and sparking many potential new therapies. Cas12a was a major addition to the gene-cutting toolbox, able to cut double-stranded DNA at places that Cas9 can’t, and, because it leaves ragged edges, perhaps easier to use when inserting a new gene at the DNA cut.
But co-first authors Janice Chen, Enbo Ma and Lucas Harrington in Doudna’s lab discovered that when Cas12a binds and cuts a targeted double-stranded DNA sequence, it unexpectedly unleashes indiscriminate cutting of all single-stranded DNA in a test tube.
Most of the DNA in a cell is in the form of a double-stranded helix, so this is not necessarily a problem for gene-editing applications. But it does allow researchers to use a single-stranded “reporter” molecule with the CRISPR-Cas12a protein, which produces an unambiguous fluorescent signal when Cas12a has found its target.
“We continue to be fascinated by the functions of bacterial CRISPR systems and how mechanistic understanding leads to opportunities for new technologies,” said Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
The new DETECTR system based on CRISPR-Cas12a can analyze cells, blood, saliva, urine and stool to detect genetic mutations, cancer and antibiotic resistance as well as diagnose bacterial and viral infections. Target DNA is amplified by RPA to make it easier for Cas12a to find it and bind, unleashing indiscriminate cutting of single-stranded DNA, including DNA attached to a fluorescent marker (gold star) that tells researchers that Cas12a has found its target.
The UC Berkeley researchers, along with their colleagues at UC San Francisco, will publish their findings Feb. 15  via the journal Science’s fast-track service, First Release.
The researchers developed a diagnostic system they dubbed the DNA Endonuclease Targeted CRISPR Trans Reporter, or DETECTR, for quick and easy point-of-care detection of even small amounts of DNA in clinical samples. It involves adding all reagents in a single reaction: CRISPR-Cas12a and its RNA targeting sequence (guide RNA), fluorescent reporter molecule and an isothermal amplification system called recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA), which is similar to polymerase chain reaction (PCR). When warmed to body temperature, RPA rapidly multiplies the number of copies of the target DNA, boosting the chances Cas12a will find one of them, bind and unleash single-strand DNA cutting, resulting in a fluorescent readout.
The UC Berkeley researchers tested this strategy using patient samples containing human papilloma virus (HPV), in collaboration with Joel Palefsky’s lab at UC San Francisco. Using DETECTR, they were able to demonstrate accurate detection of the “high-risk” HPV types 16 and 18 in samples infected with many different HPV types.
“This protein works as a robust tool to detect DNA from a variety of sources,” Chen said. “We want to push the limits of the technology, which is potentially applicable in any point-of-care diagnostic situation where there is a DNA component, including cancer and infectious disease.”
The indiscriminate cutting of all single-stranded DNA, which the researchers discovered holds true for all related Cas12 molecules, but not Cas9, may have unwanted effects in genome editing applications, but more research is needed on this topic, Chen said. During the transcription of genes, for example, the cell briefly creates single strands of DNA that could accidentally be cut by Cas12a.
The activity of the Cas12 proteins is similar to that of another family of CRISPR enzymes, Cas13a, which chew up RNA after binding to a target RNA sequence. Various teams, including Doudna’s, are developing diagnostic tests using Cas13a that could, for example, detect the RNA genome of HIV.
(Infographic by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute)
These new tools have been repurposed from their original role in microbes where they serve as adaptive immune systems to fend off viral infections. In these bacteria, Cas proteins store records of past infections and use these “memories” to identify harmful DNA during infections. Cas12a, the protein used in this study, then cuts the invading DNA, saving the bacteria from being taken over by the virus.
The chance discovery of Cas12a’s unusual behavior highlights the importance of basic research, Chen said, since it came from a basic curiosity about the mechanism Cas12a uses to cleave double-stranded DNA.
“It’s cool that, by going after the question of the cleavage mechanism of this protein, we uncovered what we think is a very powerful technology useful in an array of applications,” Chen said.
A November 21, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes a rather extraordinary (to me, anyway) approach to using CRRISP ( Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-CAS9 (Note: A link has been removed),
A team of scientists led by Virginia Commonwealth University physicist Jason Reed, Ph.D., have developed new nanomapping technology that could transform the way disease-causing genetic mutations are diagnosed and discovered. Described in a study published today [November 21, 2017] in the journal Nature Communications (“DNA nanomapping using CRISPR-Cas9 as a programmable nanoparticle”), this novel approach uses high-speed atomic force microscopy (AFM) combined with a CRISPR-based chemical barcoding technique to map DNA nearly as accurately as DNA sequencing while processing large sections of the genome at a much faster rate. What’s more–the technology can be powered by parts found in your run-of-the-mill DVD player.
The human genome is made up of billions of DNA base pairs. Unraveled, it stretches to a length of nearly six feet long. When cells divide, they must make a copy of their DNA for the new cell. However, sometimes various sections of the DNA are copied incorrectly or pasted together at the wrong location, leading to genetic mutations that cause diseases such as cancer. DNA sequencing is so precise that it can analyze individual base pairs of DNA. But in order to analyze large sections of the genome to find genetic mutations, technicians must determine millions of tiny sequences and then piece them together with computer software. In contrast, biomedical imaging techniques such as fluorescence in situ hybridization, known as FISH, can only analyze DNA at a resolution of several hundred thousand base pairs.
Reed’s new high-speed AFM method can map DNA to a resolution of tens of base pairs while creating images up to a million base pairs in size. And it does it using a fraction of the amount of specimen required for DNA sequencing.
“DNA sequencing is a powerful tool, but it is still quite expensive and has several technological and functional limitations that make it difficult to map large areas of the genome efficiently and accurately,” said Reed, principal investigator on the study. Reed is a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center and an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“Our approach bridges the gap between DNA sequencing and other physical mapping techniques that lack resolution,” he said. “It can be used as a stand-alone method or it can complement DNA sequencing by reducing complexity and error when piecing together the small bits of genome analyzed during the sequencing process.”
IBM scientists made headlines in 1989 when they developed AFM technology and used a related technique to rearrange molecules at the atomic level to spell out “IBM.” AFM achieves this level of detail by using a microscopic stylus — similar to a needle on a record player — that barely makes contact with the surface of the material being studied. The interaction between the stylus and the molecules creates the image. However, traditional AFM is too slow for medical applications and so it is primarily used by engineers in materials science.
“Our device works in the same fashion as AFM but we move the sample past the stylus at a much greater velocity and use optical instruments to detect the interaction between the stylus and the molecules. We can achieve the same level of detail as traditional AFM but can process material more than a thousand times faster,” said Reed, whose team proved the technology can be mainstreamed by using optical equipment found in DVD players. “High-speed AFM is ideally suited for some medical applications as it can process materials quickly and provide hundreds of times more resolution than comparable imaging methods.”
Increasing the speed of AFM was just one hurdle Reed and his colleagues had to overcome. In order to actually identify genetic mutations in DNA, they had to develop a way to place markers or labels on the surface of the DNA molecules so they could recognize patterns and irregularities. An ingenious chemical barcoding solution was developed using a form of CRISPR technology.
CRISPR has made a lot of headlines recently in regard to gene editing. CRISPR is an enzyme that scientists have been able to “program” using targeting RNA in order to cut DNA at precise locations that the cell then repairs on its own. Reed’s team altered the chemical reaction conditions of the CRISPR enzyme so that it only sticks to the DNA and does not actually cut it.
“Because the CRISPR enzyme is a protein that’s physically bigger than the DNA molecule, it’s perfect for this barcoding application,” Reed said. “We were amazed to discover this method is nearly 90 percent efficient at bonding to the DNA molecules. And because it’s easy to see the CRISPR proteins, you can spot genetic mutations among the patterns in DNA.”
To demonstrate the technique’s effectiveness, the researchers mapped genetic translocations present in lymph node biopsies of lymphoma patients. Translocations occur when one section of the DNA gets copied and pasted to the wrong place in the genome. They are especially prevalent in blood cancers such as lymphoma but occur in other cancers as well.
While there are many potential uses for this technology, Reed and his team are focusing on medical applications. They are currently developing software based on existing algorithms that can analyze patterns in sections of DNA up to and over a million base pairs in size. Once completed, it would not be hard to imagine this shoebox-sized instrument in pathology labs assisting in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases linked to genetic mutations.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
DNA nanomapping using CRISPR-Cas9 as a programmable nanoparticle by Andrey Mikheikin, Anita Olsen, Kevin Leslie, Freddie Russell-Pavier, Andrew Yacoot, Loren Picco, Oliver Payton, Amir Toor, Alden Chesney, James K. Gimzewski, Bud Mishra, & Jason Reed. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1665 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01891-9 Published online: 21 November 2017
It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),
“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”
Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.
If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.
Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),
Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write. Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.
He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs. Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all. Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic. In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.
In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples. This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.
In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive. Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.
I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,
I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,
In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.
He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …
US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),
Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.
The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.
Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”
Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.
People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.
It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.
Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”
In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor, who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.” He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.
A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,
With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”
In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”
According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.
There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”
Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.
“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”
You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.
Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.
ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.
*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.
ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,
When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.
Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)
So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.
“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October  had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.
Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.
After giving a basic explanation of the technology and some of the controversies in part 1 and offering more detail about the technology and about the possibility of designer babies in part 2; this part covers public discussion, a call for one and the suggestion that one is taking place in popular culture.
In early August 2017, an international team of scientists announced they had successfully edited the DNA of human embryos. As people process the political, moral and regulatory issues of the technology — which nudges us closer to nonfiction than science fiction — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University show the time is now to involve the American public in discussions about human genome editing.
In a study published Aug. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers assessed what people in the United States think about the uses of human genome editing and how their attitudes may drive public discussion. They found a public divided on its uses but united in the importance of moving conversations forward.
“There are several pathways we can go down with gene editing,” says UW-Madison’s Dietram Scheufele, lead author of the study and member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that compiled a report focused on human gene editing earlier this year. “Our study takes an exhaustive look at all of those possible pathways forward and asks where the public stands on each one of them.”
Compared to previous studies on public attitudes about the technology, the new study takes a more nuanced approach, examining public opinion about the use of gene editing for disease therapy versus for human enhancement, and about editing that becomes hereditary versus editing that does not.
The research team, which included Scheufele and Dominique Brossard — both professors of life sciences communication — along with Michael Xenos, professor of communication arts, first surveyed study participants about the use of editing to treat disease (therapy) versus for enhancement (creating so-called “designer babies”). While about two-thirds of respondents expressed at least some support for therapeutic editing, only one-third expressed support for using the technology for enhancement.
Diving even deeper, researchers looked into public attitudes about gene editing on specific cell types — somatic or germline — either for therapy or enhancement. Somatic cells are non-reproductive, so edits made in those cells do not affect future generations. Germline cells, however, are heritable, and changes made in these cells would be passed on to children.
Public support of therapeutic editing was high both in cells that would be inherited and those that would not, with 65 percent of respondents supporting therapy in germline cells and 64 percent supporting therapy in somatic cells. When considering enhancement editing, however, support depended more upon whether the changes would affect future generations. Only 26 percent of people surveyed supported enhancement editing in heritable germline cells and 39 percent supported enhancement of somatic cells that would not be passed on to children.
“A majority of people are saying that germline enhancement is where the technology crosses that invisible line and becomes unacceptable,” says Scheufele. “When it comes to therapy, the public is more open, and that may partly be reflective of how severe some of those genetically inherited diseases are. The potential treatments for those diseases are something the public at least is willing to consider.”
Beyond questions of support, researchers also wanted to understand what was driving public opinions. They found that two factors were related to respondents’ attitudes toward gene editing as well as their attitudes toward the public’s role in its emergence: the level of religious guidance in their lives, and factual knowledge about the technology.
Those with a high level of religious guidance in their daily lives had lower support for human genome editing than those with low religious guidance. Additionally, those with high knowledge of the technology were more supportive of it than those with less knowledge.
While respondents with high religious guidance and those with high knowledge differed on their support for the technology, both groups highly supported public engagement in its development and use. These results suggest broad agreement that the public should be involved in questions of political, regulatory and moral aspects of human genome editing.
“The public may be split along lines of religiosity or knowledge with regard to what they think about the technology and scientific community, but they are united in the idea that this is an issue that requires public involvement,” says Scheufele. “Our findings show very nicely that the public is ready for these discussions and that the time to have the discussions is now, before the science is fully ready and while we have time to carefully think through different options regarding how we want to move forward.”
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
U.S. attitudes on human genome editing by Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard1, and Bruce W. Hardy. Science 11 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 553-554 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3708
This paper is behind a paywall.
A couple of final comments
Briefly, I notice that there’s no mention of the ethics of patenting this technology in the news release about the study.
Moving on, it seems surprising that the first team to engage in germline editing in the US is in Oregon; I would have expected the work to come from Massachusetts, California, or Illinois where a lot of bleeding edge medical research is performed. However, given the dearth of financial support from federal funding institutions, it seems likely that only an outsider would dare to engage i the research. Given the timing, Mitalipov’s work was already well underway before the recent about-face from the US National Academy of Sciences (Note: Kaiser’s Feb. 14, 2017 article does note that for some the recent recommendations do not represent any change).
As for discussion on issues such as editing of the germline, I’ve often noted here that popular culture (including advertising with the science fiction and other dramas laid in various media) often provides an informal forum for discussion. Joelle Renstrom in an Aug. 13, 2017 article for slate.com writes that Orphan Black (a BBC America series featuring clones) opened up a series of questions about science and ethics in the guise of a thriller about clones. She offers a précis of the first four seasons (Note: A link has been removed),
If you stopped watching a few seasons back, here’s a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest people’s genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.
She then provides the article’s thesis (Note: Links have been removed),
Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagan’s warning of a time when “awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether they’re missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something “of simpler organisation” than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Black’s evil scientists embody this belief: if they’re going to play God, then they’ll control not just their own destinies, but the clones’ and, ultimately, all of humanity’s. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater good—reasoning that culminates in Westmoreland’s eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesn’t enhance.
Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmoreland’s goal to “sell Neolution to the 1 percent” seems frighteningly plausible—transhumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. …
On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The show’s message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be “irresponsible to proceed” without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isn’t farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanity—of both the scientists and the subjects—is inevitable.
In Carl Sagan’s dark vision of the future, “people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority.” This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. …
I hope there are discussions such as those Scheufele and Brossard are advocating but it might be worth considering that there is already some discussion underway, as informal as it is.
Having included an explanation of CRISPR-CAS9 technology along with the news about the first US team to edit the germline and bits and pieces about ethics and a patent fight (part 1), this part hones in on the details of the work and worries about ‘designer babies’.
The interest flurry
I found three articles addressing the research and all three concur that despite some of the early reporting, this is not the beginning of a ‘designer baby’ generation.
MIT Technology Review reported Thursday that a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon were the first team of U.S.-based scientists to successfully create a genetically modified human embryo. The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of—in MIT Technology Review’s words—“many tens” of genetically-diseased embryos by injecting the host egg with CRISPR, a DNA-based gene editing tool first discovered in bacteria, at the time of fertilization. CRISPR-Cas9, as the full editing system is called, allows scientists to change genes accurately and efficiently. As has happened with research elsewhere, the CRISPR-edited embryos weren’t implanted—they were kept sustained for only a couple of days.
In addition to being the first American team to complete this feat, the researchers also improved upon the work of the three Chinese research teams that beat them to editing embryos with CRISPR: Mitalipov’s team increased the proportion of embryonic cells that received the intended genetic changes, addressing an issue called “mosaicism,” which is when an embryo is comprised of cells with different genetic makeups. Increasing that proportion is essential to CRISPR work in eliminating inherited diseases, to ensure that the CRISPR therapy has the intended result. The Oregon team also reduced the number of genetic errors introduced by CRISPR, reducing the likelihood that a patient would develop cancer elsewhere in the body.
Separate from the scientific advancements, it’s a big deal that this work happened in a country with such intense politicization of embryo research. …
But there are a great number of obstacles between the current research and the future of genetically editing all children to be 12-foot-tall Einsteins.
Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),
… the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”
Given the persistent confusion around CRISPR and its implications, I’ve laid out exactly what the team did, and what it means.
Who did the experiments?
Shoukhrat Mitalipov is a Kazakhstani-born cell biologist with a history of breakthroughs—and controversy—in the stem cell field. He was the scientist to clone monkeys. He was the first to create human embryos by cloning adult cells—a move that could provide patients with an easy supply of personalized stem cells. He also pioneered a technique for creating embryos with genetic material from three biological parents, as a way of preventing a group of debilitating inherited diseases.
Although MIT Tech Review name-checked Mitalipov alone, the paper splits credit for the research between five collaborating teams—four based in the United States, and one in South Korea.
What did they actually do?
The project effectively began with an elevator conversation between Mitalipov and his colleague Sanjiv Kaul. Mitalipov explained that he wanted to use CRISPR to correct a disease-causing gene in human embryos, and was trying to figure out which disease to focus on. Kaul, a cardiologist, told him about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)—an inherited heart disease that’s commonly caused by mutations in a gene called MYBPC3. HCM is surprisingly common, affecting 1 in 500 adults. Many of them lead normal lives, but in some, the walls of their hearts can thicken and suddenly fail. For that reason, HCM is the commonest cause of sudden death in athletes. “There really is no treatment,” says Kaul. “A number of drugs are being evaluated but they are all experimental,” and they merely treat the symptoms. The team wanted to prevent HCM entirely by removing the underlying mutation.
They collected sperm from a man with HCM and used CRISPR to change his mutant gene into its normal healthy version, while simultaneously using the sperm to fertilize eggs that had been donated by female volunteers. In this way, they created embryos that were completely free of the mutation. The procedure was effective, and avoided some of the critical problems that have plagued past attempts to use CRISPR in human embryos.
Wait, other human embryos have been edited before?
There have been three attempts in China. The first two—in 2015 and 2016—used non-viable embryos that could never have resulted in a live birth. The third—announced this March—was the first to use viable embryos that could theoretically have been implanted in a womb. All of these studies showed that CRISPR gene-editing, for all its hype, is still in its infancy.
The editing was imprecise. CRISPR is heralded for its precision, allowing scientists to edit particular genes of choice. But in practice, some of the Chinese researchers found worrying levels of off-target mutations, where CRISPR mistakenly cut other parts of the genome.
The editing was inefficient. The first Chinese team only managed to successfully edit a disease gene in 4 out of 86 embryos, and the second team fared even worse.
The editing was incomplete. Even in the successful cases, each embryo had a mix of modified and unmodified cells. This pattern, known as mosaicism, poses serious safety problems if gene-editing were ever to be used in practice. Doctors could end up implanting women with embryos that they thought were free of a disease-causing mutation, but were only partially free. The resulting person would still have many tissues and organs that carry those mutations, and might go on to develop symptoms.
What did the American team do differently?
The Chinese teams all used CRISPR to edit embryos at early stages of their development. By contrast, the Oregon researchers delivered the CRISPR components at the earliest possible point—minutes before fertilization. That neatly avoids the problem of mosaicism by ensuring that an embryo is edited from the very moment it is created. The team did this with 54 embryos and successfully edited the mutant MYBPC3 gene in 72 percent of them. In the other 28 percent, the editing didn’t work—a high failure rate, but far lower than in previous attempts. Better still, the team found no evidence of off-target mutations.
This is a big deal. Many scientists assumed that they’d have to do something more convoluted to avoid mosaicism. They’d have to collect a patient’s cells, which they’d revert into stem cells, which they’d use to make sperm or eggs, which they’d edit using CRISPR. “That’s a lot of extra steps, with more risks,” says Alta Charo. “If it’s possible to edit the embryo itself, that’s a real advance.” Perhaps for that reason, this is the first study to edit human embryos that was published in a top-tier scientific journal—Nature, which rejected some of the earlier Chinese papers.
Is this kind of research even legal?
Yes. In Western Europe, 15 countries out of 22 ban any attempts to change the human germ line—a term referring to sperm, eggs, and other cells that can transmit genetic information to future generations. No such stance exists in the United States but Congress has banned the Food and Drug Administration from considering research applications that make such modifications. Separately, federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health are banned from funding research that ultimately destroys human embryos. But the Oregon team used non-federal money from their institutions, and donations from several small non-profits. No taxpayer money went into their work. [emphasis mine]
Why would you want to edit embryos at all?
Partly to learn more about ourselves. By using CRISPR to manipulate the genes of embryos, scientists can learn more about the earliest stages of human development, and about problems like infertility and miscarriages. That’s why biologist Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute in London recently secured a license from a British regulator to use CRISPR on human embryos.
Isn’t this a slippery slope toward making designer babies?
In terms of avoiding genetic diseases, it’s not conceptually different from PGD, which is already widely used. The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.
“There’s the worry that this could be used for enhancement, so society has to draw a line,” says Mitalipov. “But this is pretty complex technology and it wouldn’t be hard to regulate it.”
Does this discovery have any social importance at all?
“It’s not so much about designer babies as it is about geographical location,” says Charo. “It’s happening in the United States, and everything here around embryo research has high sensitivity.” She and others worry that the early report about the study, before the actual details were available for scrutiny, could lead to unnecessary panic. “Panic reactions often lead to panic-driven policy … which is usually bad policy,” wrote Greely [bioethicist Hank Greely].
As I understand it, despite the change in stance, there is no federal funding available for the research performed by Mitalipov and his team.
Finally, University College London (UCL) scientists Joyce Harper and Helen O’Neill wrote about CRISPR, the Oregon team’s work, and the possibilities in an Aug. 3, 2017 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),
The genome editing tool used, CRISPR-Cas9, has transformed the field of biology in the short time since its discovery in that it not only promises, but delivers. CRISPR has surpassed all previous efforts to engineer cells and alter genomes at a fraction of the time and cost.
The technology, which works like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA, is a natural defence system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections. This system has the ability to recognise invading virus DNA, cut it and integrate this cut sequence into its own genome – allowing the bacterium to render itself immune to future infections of viruses with similar DNA. It is this ability to recognise and cut DNA that has allowed scientists to use it to target and edit specific DNA regions.
When this technology is applied to “germ cells” – the sperm and eggs – or embryos, it changes the germline. That means that any alterations made would be permanent and passed down to future generations. This makes it more ethically complex, but there are strict regulations around human germline genome editing, which is predominantly illegal. The UK received a licence in 2016 to carry out CRISPR on human embryos for research into early development. But edited embryos are not allowed to be inserted into the uterus and develop into a fetus in any country.
Germline genome editing came into the global spotlight when Chinese scientists announced in 2015 that they had used CRISPR to edit non-viable human embryos – cells that could never result in a live birth. They did this to modify the gene responsible for the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. While it was met with some success, it received a lot of criticism because of the premature use of this technology in human embryos. The results showed a high number of potentially dangerous, off-target mutations created in the procedure.
The new study, published in Nature, is different because it deals with viable human embryos and shows that the genome editing can be carried out safely – without creating harmful mutations. The team used CRISPR to correct a mutation in the gene MYBPC3, which accounts for approximately 40% of the myocardial disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a dominant disease, so an affected individual only needs one abnormal copy of the gene to be affected.
The researchers used sperm from a patient carrying one copy of the MYBPC3 mutation to create 54 embryos. They edited them using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct the mutation. Without genome editing, approximately 50% of the embryos would carry the patients’ normal gene and 50% would carry his abnormal gene.
After genome editing, the aim would be for 100% of embryos to be normal. In the first round of the experiments, they found that 66.7% of embryos – 36 out of 54 – were normal after being injected with CRIPSR. Of the remaining 18 embryos, five had remained unchanged, suggesting editing had not worked. In 13 embryos, only a portion of cells had been edited.
The level of efficiency is affected by the type of CRISPR machinery used and, critically, the timing in which it is put into the embryo. The researchers therefore also tried injecting the sperm and the CRISPR-Cas9 complex into the egg at the same time, which resulted in more promising results. This was done for 75 mature donated human eggs using a common IVF technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection. This time, impressively, 72.4% of embryos were normal as a result. The approach also lowered the number of embryos containing a mixture of edited and unedited cells (these embryos are called mosaics).
Finally, the team injected a further 22 embryos which were grown into blastocyst – a later stage of embryo development. These were sequenced and the researchers found that the editing had indeed worked. Importantly, they could show that the level of off-target mutations was low.
A brave new world?
So does this mean we finally have a cure for debilitating, heritable diseases? It’s important to remember that the study did not achieve a 100% success rate. Even the researchers themselves stress that further research is needed in order to fully understand the potential and limitations of the technique.
In our view, it is unlikely that genome editing would be used to treat the majority of inherited conditions anytime soon. We still can’t be sure how a child with a genetically altered genome will develop over a lifetime, so it seems unlikely that couples carrying a genetic disease would embark on gene editing rather than undergoing already available tests – such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal diagnosis – where the embryos or fetus are tested for genetic faults.
As might be expected there is now a call for public discussion about the ethics about this kind of work. See Part 3.
For anyone who started in the middle of this series, here’s Part 1 featuring an introduction to the technology and some of the issues.
There’s been a minor flurry of interest in CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats; also known as CRISPR-CAS9), a gene-editing technique, since a team in Oregon announced a paper describing their work editing the germline. Since I’ve been following the CRISPR-CAS9 story for a while this seems like a good juncture for a more in-depth look at the topic. In this first part I’m including an introduction to CRISPR, some information about the latest US work, and some previous writing about ethics issues raised when Chinese scientists first announced their work editing germlines in 2015 and during the patent dispute between the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University’s Broad Institute.
Introduction to CRISPR
I’ve been searching for a good description of CRISPR and this helped to clear up some questions for me (Thank you to MIT Review),
For anyone who’s been reading about science for a while, this upbeat approach to explaining how a particular technology will solve all sorts of problems will seem quite familiar. It’s not the most hyperbolic piece I’ve seen but it barely mentions any problems associated with research (for some of the problems see: ‘The interest flurry’ later in part 2).
Steve Connor’s July 26, 2017 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review breaks the news (Note: Links have been removed),
The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, MIT Technology Review has learned.
The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.
Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.
Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.
Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.
In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.
Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.
The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”
Here’s a link to a citation for the groundbreaking paper,
Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos by Hong Ma, Nuria Marti-Gutierrez, Sang-Wook Park, Jun Wu, Yeonmi Lee, Keiichiro Suzuki, Amy Koski, Dongmei Ji, Tomonari Hayama, Riffat Ahmed, Hayley Darby, Crystal Van Dyken, Ying Li, Eunju Kang, A.-Reum Park, Daesik Kim, Sang-Tae Kim, Jianhui Gong, Ying Gu, Xun Xu, David Battaglia, Sacha A. Krieg, David M. Lee, Diana H. Wu, Don P. Wolf, Stephen B. Heitner, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Paula Amato, Jin-Soo Kim, Sanjiv Kaul, & Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature23305 Published online 02 August 2017
This paper appears to be open access.
CRISPR Issues: ethics and patents
In my May 14, 2015 posting I mentioned a ‘moratorium’ on germline research, the Chinese research paper, and the stance taken by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH),
The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),
On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.
Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.
The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,
An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.
I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.
Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,
In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.
In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.
“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”
Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)
He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.
Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.
This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.
There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),
In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).
“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …
The US has modified its stance according to a February 14, 2017 article by Jocelyn Kaiser for Science Magazine (Note: Links have been removed),
Editing the DNA of a human embryo to prevent a disease in a baby could be ethically allowable one day—but only in rare circumstances and with safeguards in place, says a widely anticipated report released today.
The report from an international committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that such a clinical trial “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Those situations could be limited to couples who both have a serious genetic disease and for whom embryo editing is “really the last reasonable option” if they want to have a healthy biological child, says committee co-chair Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Some researchers are pleased with the report, saying it is consistent with previous conclusions that safely altering the DNA of human eggs, sperm, or early embryos—known as germline editing—to create a baby could be possible eventually. “They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” says genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lander was among the organizers of an international summit at NAS in December 2015 who called for more discussion before proceeding with embryo editing.
But others see the report as lowering the bar for such experiments because it does not explicitly say they should be prohibited for now. “It changes the tone to an affirmative position in the absence of the broad public debate this report calls for,” says Edward Lanphier, chairman of the DNA editing company Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California. Two years ago, he co-authored a Nature commentary calling for a moratorium on clinical embryo editing.
One advocacy group opposed to embryo editing goes further. “We’re very disappointed with the report. It’s really a pretty dramatic shift from the existing and widespread agreement globally that human germline editing should be prohibited,” says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California.
Interestingly, this change of stance occurred just prior to a CRISPR patent decision (from my March 15, 2017 posting),
I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.
It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,
After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 . The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.
Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),
It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.
The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.
Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.
I also noted this eyebrow-lifting statistic, “As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.)
Anyone who’s noticed how popular silver has become as an antibacterial, antifungal, or antiviral agent may have wondered if resistance might occur as its use becomes more common. I have two bits on the topic, one from Australia and the other from Canada.
Researchers in Australia don’t have a definitive statement on the issue but are suggesting more caution (from a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),
Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney [UTS] warn that the broad-spectrum antimicrobial effectiveness of silver is being put at risk by the widespread and inappropriate expansion of nanosilver use in medical and consumer goods.
As well as their use in medical items such as wound dressings and catheters, silver nanoparticles are becoming ubiquitous in everyday items, including toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby bottles and teats, bedding, clothing and household appliances, because of their antibacterial potency and the incorrect assumption that ordinary items should be kept “clean” of microbes.
Nanobiologist Dr Cindy Gunawan, from the ithree institute at UTS and lead researcher on the investigation, said alarm bells should be ringing at the commercialisation of nanosilver use because of a “real threat” that resistance to nanosilver will develop and spread through microorganisms in the human body and the environment.
Dr Gunawan and ithree institute director Professor Liz Harry, in collaboration with researchers at UNSW [University of New South Wales] and abroad, investigated more than 140 commercially available medical devices, including wound dressings and tracheal and urinary catheters, and dietary supplements, which are promoted as immunity boosters and consumed by throat or nasal spray.
Their perspective article in the journal ACS Nano concluded that the use of nanosilver in these items could lead to prolonged exposure to bioactive silver in the human body. Such exposure creates the conditions for microbial resistance to develop.
The use of silver as an antimicrobial agent dates back centuries. Its ability to destroy pathogens while seemingly having low toxicity on human cells has seen it widely employed, in treating burns or purifying water, for example. More recently, ultra-small (less than 10,000th of a millimetre) silver nanoparticles have been engineered for antimicrobial purposes. Their commercial appeal lies in superior potency at lower concentrations than “bulk” silver.
“Nanosilver is a proven antimicrobial agent whose reliability is being jeopardised by the commercialisation of people’s fear of bacteria,” Dr Gunawan said.
“Our use of it needs to be far more judicious, in the same way we need to approach antibiotic usage. Nanosilver is a useful tool but we need to be careful, use it wisely and only when the benefit outweighs the risk.
“People need to be made aware of just how widely it is used, but more importantly they need to be made aware that the presence of nanosilver has been shown to cause antimicrobial resistance.”
What is also needed, Dr Gunawan said, is a targeted surveillance strategy to monitor for any occurrence of resistance.
Professor Harry said the findings were a significant contribution to addressing the global antimicrobial resistance crisis.
“This research emphasises the threat posed to our health and that of the environment by the inappropriate use of nanosilver as an antibacterial, particularly in ordinary household and consumer items,” she said.
Silver and other metals have been used to fight infections since ancient times. Today, researchers are using sophisticated techniques such as the gene-editing platform Crispr-Cas9 to take a closer look at precisely how silver poisons pathogenic microbes–and when it fails. The work is yielding new insights on how to create effective antimicrobials and avoid the pitfalls of antimicrobial resistance.
Joe Lemire, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, will present his work in this area at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting, to be held April 22-26 in Chicago.
“Our overarching goal is to deliver the relevant scientific evidence that would aid policymakers in developing guidelines for when and how silver could be used in the clinic to combat and control infectious pathogens,” said Lemire. “With our enhanced mechanistic understanding of silver toxicity, we also aim to develop novel silver-based antimicrobial therapies, and potentially rejuvenate other antibiotic therapies that bacteria have come to resist, via silver-based co-treatment strategies.”
Lemire and his colleagues are using Crispr-Cas9 genome editing to screen for and delete genes that allow certain bacterial species to resist silver’s antimicrobial properties. [emphasis mine] Although previous methods allowed researchers to identify genes that confer antibiotic resistance or tolerance, Crispr-Cas9 is the first technology to allow researchers to cleanly delete these genes from the genome without leaving behind any biochemical markers or “scars.”
The team has discovered many biological pathways involved in silver toxicity and some surprising ways that bacteria avoid succumbing to silver poisoning, Lemire said. While silver is used to control bacteria in many clinical settings and has been incorporated into hundreds of commercial products, gaining a more complete understanding of silver’s antimicrobial properties is necessary if we are to make the most of this ancient remedy for years to come.
Joe Lemire will present this research at 12-2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25,  in Hall F, McCormick Place Convention Center (poster B379 939.2) (abstract). Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to attend the meeting.
About Experimental Biology 2017
Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six host societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the U.S. and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. http://www.experimentalbiology.org #expbio
About the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)
ASBMB is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. Founded in 1906 to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology, the society publishes three peer-reviewed journals, advocates for funding of basic research and education, supports science education at all levels, and promotes the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce. http://www.asbmb.org
Lemire’s co-authors for the work presented at the 2017 annual meeting are: Kate Chatfield-Reed (The University of Calgary), Lindsay Kalan (Perelman School of Medicine), Natalie Gugala (The University of Calgary), Connor Westersund (The University of Calgary), Henrik Almblad (The University of Calgary), Gordon Chua (The University of Calgary), Raymond Turner (The University of Calgary).
For anyone who wants to pursue this research a little further, the most recent paper I can find is this one from 2015,
It seems that NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) is extending its reach and moving towards synthetic biology projects (as first noted in my July 9, 2015 post about the June/July 2015 Nano Bite). From their August 2015 newsletter,
→ Building with Biology Between August and September, at eight pilot sites across the U.S., Building with Biology Activities and Conversations about Synthetic Biology events are taking place and bringing scientists and members of the public together to consider societal implications of this fast-growing field [view schedule of upcoming BwB events]. A free physical kit will be available to 200 sites nationwide to host a Building with Biology event of your own during the summer of 2016. Time to start thinking about scientists in your community to invite and engage with the public for these activities and conversations! Kit applications will open later this fall and will be due in early 2016.
The Building with Biology pilot events in the Summer of 2015 will bring scientists and members of the public together at 8 science centers and museums across the U.S. to consider societal implications of this fast-growing field. In the summer of 2016, these conversations will take place at 200 sites around the nation:
Mars is a long way off – literally speaking – but the approximately 34 million miles between Earth and Mars isn’t deterring scientists from planning a mission to Mars. NASA estimates, depending on technology used, that travel to Mars will take about eight months, with astronauts spending anywhere between a few weeks to over a year on Mars before returning to Earth. Instead of packing and moving all the necessary living essentials, scientists are proposing the use of synthetic biological processes “to make extraterrestrial travel more practical and bearable.” For example, synthetic biology could be used to help reuse crew waste, to create fuel, to use microbes to sustain plant-based farming and engineering them to produce pharmaceuticals.
The gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9 (the first term stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” which is a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 refers to the protein that makes it work), is a scientific breakthrough in genome editing, but is causing pause among some because of the ability to quickly and easily alter DNA that this technique provides. The applications of CRISPR are far ranging from agriculture to medicine, and has the potential to change the world, but the legality, ethics and societal implications remain less clearly defined. As one researcher notes, “You can’t stop science from progressing…Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”
The mention of Mars in the space exploration item reminded me of ‘The Martian’, an upcoming space exploration movie featuring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars. I’m not sure when it’s being released but they are very busy publicizing this movie, from an August 19, 2015 news item on Yahoo news,
Matt Damon has said he is in no hurry to travel into space, despite portraying astronauts in two movies in quick succession.
The Hollywood star played an astronaut left on an ice planet in Interstellar last year and will next be seen as a botanist left for dead on Mars in director Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian.
Matt, 44, plays Mark Watney, an astronaut abandoned on the planet after his crewmates think he has been killed in an accident. The film, an adaptation of the hit novel of the same name, follows his battle for survival and the attempts to bring him home.
“Drew Goddard adapted the screenplay and the first thing he said was, ‘I want this to be a love letter to science’, and that is a really wonderful thing to put out into the world. I don’t have any lofty expectations but I hope some kids see it and geek out on the science and enjoy it and it might be one thing of many in their life that pushes them in that direction.”
Ridley collaborated closely with American space agency Nasa [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] to make the film as accurate as possible and Dr Jim Green, director of the planetary science division, believes it will have an inspirational effect.
“I really think that will happen, we are talking about the Mars generation. When we landed Curiosity on Mars we had the world’s attention and that is the inspiration that will propel our economy forward by bringing in the scientists and the engineers,” he said.
Dr Green added that the film gives a tantalising glimpse of what could soon be a reality.
“Science fiction is extremely important in our culture, it is engrained in what we do and it really projects a vision of the future and something we aspire to, and what I really enjoyed about the book and the movie is how close to reality it can be, it’s just around the corner for us.”