Tag Archives: George Church

Online Link to Intelligence Squared’s De-Extinction Debate in NYC on January 31, 2919 at 7 pm ET (or 4 pm PT)

Click https://www.youtube.com/embed/N-1iqmKlTs8 at 7 pm ET (or 4 pm PT) to listen on the De-Extinction debate.

The proposition for the debate is: “Don’t bring extinct creatures back to life” and arguing against are George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard and MIT & Founder, Personal Genome Project, and Stewart Brand, Co-Founder of Revive & Restore & Founder of Whole Earth Catalog and arguing for are Dr. Ross MacPhee: Curator, Department of Mammalogy, Division of Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History and Dr. Lynn J. Rothschild: Evolutionary Biologist & Astrobiologist. For more about the debate and the participants check my January 18, 2019 posting.

Why not monetize your DNA for 2019?

I’m not a big fan of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) companies that promise to tell you about your ancestors and, depending on the kit, predisposition to certain health issues as per their reports about your genetic code. (I regularly pray no one in my family has decided to pay one of these companies to analyze their spit.)

During Christmas season 2018, the DNA companies (23andMe and Ancestry) advertised special prices so you could gift someone in your family with a kit. All this corporate largesse may not be wholly in service of the Christmas spirit. After all, there’s money to be made once they’ve gotten your sample.

Monetizing your DNA in 2016

I don’t know when 23andMe started selling DNA information or if any similar company predated their efforts but this June 21, 2016 article by Antonio Regalado for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Review offers the earliest information I found,

“Welcome to You.” So says the genetic test kit that 23andMe will send to your home. Pay $199, spit in a tube, and several weeks later you’ll get a peek into your DNA. Have you got the gene for blond hair? Which of 36 disease risks could you pass to a child?

Run by entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, the ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, and until last year housed alongside the Googleplex, the company created a test that has been attacked by regulators and embraced by a curious public. It remains, nine years after its introduction, the only one of its kind sold directly to consumers. 23andMe has managed to amass a collection of DNA information about 1.2 million people, which last year began to prove its value when the company revealed it had sold access to the data to more than 13 drug companies. One, Genentech, anted up $10 million for a look at the genes of people with Parkinson’s disease.

That means 23andMe is monetizing DNA rather the way Facebook makes money from our “likes.” What’s more, it gets its customers to pay for the privilege. That idea so appeals to investors that they have valued the still-unprofitable company at over $1 billion. “Money follows data,” says Barbara Evans, a legal scholar at the University of Houston, who studies personal genetics. “It takes a lot of labor and capital to get that information in a form that is useful.”

Monetizing your DNA in 2018 and privacy concerns

Starting with Adele Peters’ December 13, 2018 article for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

When 23andMe made a $300 million deal with GlaxoSmithKline [GSK] in July[2018]–so the pharmaceutical giant could access a vast store of genetic data as it works on new drugs–the consumers who actually provided that data didn’t get a cut of the proceeds. A new health platform is taking a different approach: If you choose to share your own DNA data or other health records, you’ll get company shares that will later pay you dividends if that data is sold.

Before getting to the start-up that would allow you rather than a company to profit or at least somewhat monetize your DNA, I’m including a general overview of the July 2018 GSK/23andMe deal in Jamie Ducharme’s July 26, 2018 article for TIME (Note: Links have been removed),

Consumer genetic testing company 23andMe announced on Wednesday [July 25, 2018] that GlaxoSmithKline purchased a $300 million stake in the company, allowing the pharmaceutical giant to use 23andMe’s trove of genetic data to develop new drugs — and raising new privacy concerns for consumers

The “collaboration” is a way to make “novel treatments and cures a reality,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said in a company blog post. But, though it isn’t 23andMe’s first foray into drug discovery, the deal doesn’t seem quite so simple to some medical experts — or some of the roughly 5 million 23andMe customers who have sent off tubes of their spit in exchange for ancestry and health insights

Perhaps the most obvious issue is privacy, says Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a non-partisan non-profit that aims to promote patient-centered health care.

“If people are concerned about their social security numbers being stolen, they should be concerned about their genetic information being misused,” Pitts says. “This information is never 100% safe. The risk is magnified when one organization shares it with a second organization. When information moves from one place to another, there’s always a chance for it to be intercepted by unintended third parties.

That risk is real, agrees Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. Caplan says that any genetic privacy concerns also extend to your blood relatives, who likely did not consent to having their DNA tested — echoing some of the questions that arose after law enforcement officials used a genealogy website to find and arrest the suspected Golden State Killer in April [2018].

“A lot of people paid money to 23andMe to get their ancestry determined — fun, recreational stuff,” Caplan says. “Even though they may have signed a thing saying, ‘I’m okay if you use this information for medical research,’ I’m not sure they understood what that really meant. I’m not sure they understood that it meant, ‘Yes, we’ll go to Glaxo, and that’s where we’re really going to make a lot of money off of you.’”

A 23andMe spokesperson told TIME that data privacy is a “top priority” for the company, emphasizing that customer data isn’t used in research without consent, and that GlaxoSmithKline will only receive “summary statistics from analyses 23andMe conducts so that no single individual can be identified.”

Yes the data is supposed to be stripped of identifying information but given how many times similar claims about geolocation data have been disproved, I am skeptical. DJ Pangburn’s September 26, 2017 article (Even This Data Guru Is Creeped Out By What Anonymous Location Data Reveals About Us) for Fast Company illustrate the fragility of ‘anonymized data’,

… as a number of studies have shown, even when it’s “anonymous,” stripped of so-called personally identifiable information, geographic data can help create a detailed portrait of a person and, with enough ancillary data, identify them by name

Curious to see this kind of data mining in action, I emailed Gilad Lotan, now vice president of BuzzFeed’s data science team. He agreed to look at a month’s worth of two different users’ anonymized location data, and to come up with individual profiles that were as accurate as possible

The results, produced in just a few days’ time, range from the expected to the surprisingly revealing, and demonstrate just how “anonymous” data can identify individuals.

Last fall Lotan taught a class at New York University on surveillance that kicked off with an assignment like the one I’d given him: link anonymous location data with other data sets–from LinkedIn, Facebook, home registration and mortgage records, and other online data.
“It’s not hard to figure out who this [unnamed] person is,” says Lotan. In class, students found that tracking location data around holidays proved to be the easiest way to determine who, exactly, the data belonged to. “Basically,” he says, “visits to private homes that are owned and publicly registered.”

In 2013, researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium published a paper reporting on 15 months of study of human mobility data for over 1.5 million individuals. What they found is that only four spatio-temporal points are required to “uniquely identify 95% of the individuals.” The researchers concluded that there was very little privacy even in raw location data. Four years later, their calls for policies rectifying concerns about location tracking have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Getting back to DNA, there was also some concern at Fox News,

Other than warnings, I haven’t seen much about any possible legislation regarding DNA and privacy in either Canada or the US.

Now, let’s get to how you can monetize your self.

Me making money off me

I’ve found two possibilities for an individual who wants to consider monetizing their own DNA.

Health shares

Adele Peters’ December 13, 2018 article describes a start-up company and the model they’re proposing to allow you profit from your own DNA (Note: Links have been removed),

“You can’t say data is valuable and then take that data away from everybody,” says Dawn Barry, president and cofounder of LunaPBC, the public benefit corporation that manages the community-owned platform, called LunaDNA, which recently got SEC approval to recognize health data as currency. “What we’re finding is that [our early adopters are] very excited about the transparency of this model–that when we all come together and create value, that value flows down to the individuals who shared their data.

The platform shares some anonymized data with nonprofits, such as foundations that study rare diseases. In that case, money wouldn’t initially change hands, but “there could be intellectual property that at some point in time is monetized, and the community would share in that,” says Bob Kain, CEO and cofounder of LunaPBC. “When we have enough data in the near future, then we’ll work with pharmaceutical companies, for instance, to drive discovery for those companies. And they will pay market rates.

The company doesn’t offer DNA analysis itself, but chose to focus on data management. If you’ve sent a tube of spit to 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, or FamilyTree DNA, you can contribute that data to LunaDNA and get shares. (If you’d rather not let the original testing company keep your data, you can also separately take the steps to delete it.

“We looked at a number of different models to enable people to have ownership, including cryptocurrency, which is a proxy for ownership, too,” says Kain. “Cryptocurrency is hard to understand for most people, and right now, the regulatory landscape is blurry. So we thought, to move forward, we’d go with something much more traditional and easy to understand, and that is stock shares, basically.

For sharing targeted genes, you get 10 shares. For sharing your whole genome, you get 300 shares. At the moment, that’s not worth very much–the valuation takes into account the risk that the data might not be monetized, and the fact that the startup isn’t the exclusive owner of your data. The SEC filing says that the estimated fair market value of a whole genome is only $21. Some other health information is worth far less; 20 days of data from a fitness tracker garners two shares, valued at 14¢. But as more people contribute data, the research value of the whole database (and dividends) will increase. If the shareholders ever decided to sell the company itself, they would also make money that way.

Luna’s is a very interesting approach and I encourage you to read the December 13, 2018 article in its entirety.

Blockchain and crypto me

At least one effort to introduce blockchain/cryptocurrency technology to the process for monetizing your DNA garnered a lot of attention in February 2018.

A February 8, 2018 article by Eric Rosenbaum for CNBC (a US cable tv channel) explores an effort by George Church (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s probably wise to be skeptical of anyone who says they have a new idea for a blockchain-based company, or worse still, a company changing its business model to focus on the crypto world. That ice tea company that shifted its model to the blockchain, or Kodak saying its road back to riches was managing photo rights using a blockchain system. Raise eyebrow, or move directly onto outright shake of head

However, when a world renown Harvard geneticist announces he’s launching a blockchain-based start-up, it merits some attention. And it’s not the crypto-angle itself that might make you do a double-take, but the assets that will be managed, and exchanged, using digital currency: your DNA

Harvard University genetics guru George Church — one of the scientists at the forefront of the CRISPR genetic engineering revolution — announced on Wednesday a start-up, Nebula Genomics, that will use the blockchain to not only allow individuals to share their personal genome for research purposes, but retain ownership and monetize their DNA through trading of a custom digital currency.

The genomics revolution has been exponentially advanced by drastic reductions in cost. As Nebula noted in a white paper explaining its business model, the first human genome was sequenced in 2001 at a cost of $3 billion. Today, human genome sequencing costs less than $1,000, and in a few years the price will drop below $100

In fact, some big Silicon Valley start-ups, led by 23andMe, have capitalized on this rapid advance and already offer personal DNA testing kits for around $100 (sometimes with discounts even less)

Nebula took direct aim at 23andMe in its white paper, and one reason why it can offer genetic testing for less

“Today, 23andMe (23andme.com) and Ancestry (ancestry.com) are the two leading personal genomics companies. Both use DNA microarray-based genotyping for their genetic tests. It is an outdated and significantly less powerful alternative to DNA sequencing. Instead of sequencing continuous stretches of DNA, genotyping identifies single letters spaced at approximately regular intervals across the genome. …

Outdated genetic tests? Interesting, eh? Zoë Corbyn provides more information about Church’s plans in her February 18, 2018 article for the Guardian,

“Under the current system, personal genomics companies effectively own your personal genomics data, and you don’t see any benefit at all,” says Grishin [Dennis Grishin, Nebula co-founder]. “We want to eliminate the middleman.

Although the aim isn’t to provide a get-rich-quick scheme, the company believes there is potential for substantial returns. Though speculative, its modelling suggests that someone in the US could earn up to 50 times the cost of sequencing their genome – about $50,000 at current rates – taking into account both what could be made from a lifetime of renting out their genetic data, and reductions in medical bills if the results throw up a potentially preventable disease

The startup also thinks it can solve the problem of the dearth of genetic data researchers have to draw on, due to individuals – put off by cost or privacy concerns – not getting sequenced.

Payouts when you grant access to your genome would come in the form of Nebula tokens, the company’s cryptocurrency, and companies would need to buy tokens from the startup to pay people whose data they wanted to access. Though the value of a token is yet to be set and the number of tokens defined, it might, for example, take one Nebula token to get your genome sequenced. An individual new to the system could begin to earn fractions of a token by taking part in surveys about their heath posted by prospective data buyers. When someone had earned enough, they could get sequenced and begin renting out their data and amassing tokens. Alternatively, if an individual wasn’t yet sequenced they may find data buyers willing to pay for or subsidise their genome sequencing in exchange for access to it. “Potentially you wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for the sequencing of your genome,” says Grishin.

In all cases, stress Grishin and Obbad [Kamal Obbad, Nebula co-founder], the sequence would belong to the individual, so they could rent it out over and over, including to multiple companies simultaneously. And the data buyer would never take ownership or possession of it – rather, it would be stored by the individual (for example in their computer or on their Dropbox account) with Nebula then providing a secure computation platform on which the data buyer could compute on the data. “You stay in control of your data and you can share it securely with who you want to,” explains Obbad. Nebula makes money not by taking any transaction fee but by being a participant providing computing and storage services. The cryptocurrency would be able to be cashed out for real money via existing cryptocurrency exchanges.

Hopefully, Luna and Nebula, as well as, any competitors in this race to allow individuals to monetize their own DNA will have excellent security.

For the curious, you can find Luna here and Nebula here.Note: I am not endorsing either company or any others mentioned here. This posting is strictly informational.

First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story

Scientists, He Jiankui and Michael Deem, may have created the first human babies born after being subjected to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing.  At this point, no one is entirely certain that these babies  as described actually exist since the information was made public in a rather unusual (for scientists) fashion.

The news broke on Sunday, November 25, 2018 through a number of media outlets none of which included journals associated with gene editing or high impact journals such as Cell, Nature, or Science.The news broke in MIT Technology Review and in Associated Press. Plus, this all happened just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (Nov. 27 – 29, 2018) in Hong Kong. He Jiankui was scheduled to speak today, Nov. 27, 2018.

Predictably, this news has caused quite a tizzy.

Breaking news

Antonio Regalado broke the news in a November 25, 2018  article for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.

However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

Apparently He changed his mind because Marilynn Marchione in a November 26, 2018 article for the Associated Press confirms the news,

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist [Dr. Michael Deem] said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday [November 26, 2018] in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday [November 27, 2018], and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”

“I think this is justifiable,” Church said of that goal.

h/t Cale Guthrie Weissman’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Fast Company.

Diving into more detail

Ed Yong in a November 26, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides more details about the claims (Note: Links have been removed),

… “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the first of five videos, posted yesterday {Nov. 25, 2018] to YouTube [link provided at the end of this section of the post]. “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.” The claim has yet to be formally verified, but if true, it represents a landmark in the continuing ethical and scientific debate around gene editing.

Late last year, He reportedly enrolled seven couples in a clinical trial, and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through in vitro fertilization. His team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos, six of which they then implanted into mothers. CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.

Whether the experiment was successful or not, it’s intensely controversial. Scientists have already begun using CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies to alter human cells, in attempts to treat cancers, genetic disorders, and more. But in these cases, the affected cells stay within a person’s body. Editing an embryo [it’s often called, germline editing] is very different: It changes every cell in the body of the resulting person, including the sperm or eggs that would pass those changes to future generations. Such work is banned in many European countries, and prohibited in the United States. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” He said.

“Was this a reasonable thing to do? I would say emphatically no,” says Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu.

“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,” says Cannon. “I feel like he’s appropriating this potentially valuable therapy as a shortcut to doing something in the sphere of gene editing. He’s either very naive or very cynical.”

“I want someone to make sure that it has happened,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. If it hasn’t, that “would be a pretty bald-faced fraud,” but such deceptions have happened in the past. “If it is true, I’m disappointed. It’s reckless on safety grounds, and imprudent and stupid on social grounds.” He notes that a landmark summit in 2015 (which included Chinese researchers) and a subsequent major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine both argued that “public participation should precede any heritable germ-line editing.” That is: Society needs to work out how it feels about making gene-edited babies before any babies are edited. Absent that consensus, He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”

Societally, the creation of CRISPR-edited babies is a binary moment—a Rubicon that has been crossed. But scientifically, the devil is in the details, and most of those are still unknown.

CRISPR is still inefficient. [emphasis mine] The Chinese teams who first used it to edit human embryos only did so successfully in a small proportion of cases, and even then, they found worrying levels of “off-target mutations,” where they had erroneously cut parts of the genome outside their targeted gene. He, in his video, claimed that his team had thoroughly sequenced Nana and Lulu’s genomes and found no changes in genes other than CCR5.

That claim is impossible to verify in the absence of a peer-reviewed paper, or even published data of any kind. “The paper is where we see whether the CCR5 gene was properly edited, what effect it had at the cellular level, and whether [there were] any off-target effects,” said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute. “It’s not just ‘it worked’ as a binary declaration.”

In the video, He said that using CRISPR for human enhancement, such as enhancing IQ or selecting eye color, “should be banned.” Speaking about Nana and Lulu’s parents, he said that they “don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease that medicine can now prevent.”

But his rationale is questionable. Huang [Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University ], the first Chinese researcher to use CRISPR on human embryos, targeted the faulty gene behind an inherited disease called beta thalassemia. Mitalipov, likewise, tried to edit a gene called MYBPC3, whose faulty versions cause another inherited disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Such uses are still controversial, but they rank among the more acceptable applications for embryonic gene editing as ways of treating inherited disorders for which treatments are either difficult or nonexistent.

In contrast, He’s team disableda normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled. There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.

As Marilynn Marchione of the AP reports, early tests suggest that He’s editing was incomplete [emphasis mine], and at least one of the twins is a mosaic, where some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 and others do not. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that they would be significantly protected from HIV. And in any case, deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity, because some HIV strains can still enter cells via a different protein called CXCR4.

Nana and Lulu might have other vulnerabilities. …

It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. [emphasis mine] The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “AIDS vaccine development project,” and while it describes CRISPR gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”

He owns two genetics companies, and his collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University,  [emphasis mine] holds a small stake in, and sits on the advisory board of, both of them. The AP’s Marchione reports, “Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.” [emphasis mine]

Yong’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. As for YouTube, here’s The He Lab’s webpage with relevant videos.

Reactions

Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee, and Pam Belluck writing in a Nov. 26, 2018 article for the New York Times chronicle some of the response to He’s announcement,

It is highly unusual for a scientist to announce a groundbreaking development without at least providing data that academic peers can review. Dr. He said he had gotten permission to do the work from the ethics board of the hospital Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital, in interviews with Chinese media, denied being involved. Cheng Zhen, the general manager of Shenzhen Harmonicare, has asked the police to investigate what they suspect are “fraudulent ethical review materials,” according to the Beijing News.

The university that Dr. He is attached to, the Southern University of Science and Technology, said Dr. He has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms,” according to the state-run Beijing News.

In a statement late on Monday, China’s national health commission said it has asked the health commission in southern Guangdong province to investigate Mr. He’s claims.

“I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Mitalipov broke new ground last year by using gene editing to successfully remove a dangerous mutation from human embryos in a laboratory dish. [I wrote a three-part series about CRISPR, which included what was then the latest US news, Mitalipov’s announcement, along with a roundup of previous work in China. Links are at the end of this section.’

Dr. Mitalipov said that unlike his own work, which focuses on editing out mutations that cause serious diseases that cannot be prevented any other way, Dr. He did not do anything medically necessary. There are other ways to prevent H.I.V. infection in newborns.

Just three months ago, at a conference in late August on genome engineering at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. He presented work on editing the CCR₅ gene in the embryos of nine couples.

At the conference, whose organizers included Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of Crispr technology, Dr. He gave a careful talk about something that fellow attendees considered squarely within the realm of ethically approved research. But he did not mention that some of those embryos had been implanted in a woman and could result in genetically engineered babies.

“What we now know is that as he was talking, there was a woman in China carrying twins,” said Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a visiting researcher at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California. “He had the opportunity to say ‘Oh and by the way, I’m just going to come out and say it, people, there’s a woman carrying twins.’”

“I would never play poker against Dr. He,” Dr. Urnov quipped.

Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”

It is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to H.I.V. is “a serious unmet need.” Men with H.I.V. do not infect embryos. …

Dr. He got his Ph.D., from Rice University, in physics and his postdoctoral training, at Stanford, was with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics who works on sequencing DNA, not editing it.

Experts said that using Crispr would actually be quite easy for someone like Dr. He.

After coming to Shenzhen in 2012, Dr. He, at age 28, established a DNA sequencing company, Direct Genomics, and listed Dr. Quake on its advisory board. But, in a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Quake said he was never associated with the company.

Deem, the US scientist who worked in China with He is currently being investigated (from a Nov. 26, 2018 article by Andrew Joseph in STAT),

Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.

Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.

Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.

Megan Molteni in a Nov. 27, 2018 article for Wired admits she and her colleagues at the magazine may have dismissed CRISPR concerns about designer babies prematurely while shedding more light on this  latest development (Note: Links have been removed),

We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.

Late Sunday night, a Chinese researcher stunned the world by claiming to have created the first human babies, a set of twins, with Crispr-edited DNA….

What’s perhaps most strange is not that He ignored global recommendations on conducting responsible Crispr research in humans. He also ignored his own advice to the world—guidelines that were published within hours of his transgression becoming public.

On Monday, He and his colleagues at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, published a set of draft ethical principles “to frame, guide, and restrict clinical applications that communities around the world can share and localize based on religious beliefs, culture, and public-health challenges.” Those principles included transparency and only performing the procedure when the risks are outweighed by serious medical need.

The piece appeared in the The Crispr Journal, a young publication dedicated to Crispr research, commentary, and debate. Rodolphe Barrangou, the journal’s editor in chief, where the peer-reviewed perspective appeared, says that the article was one of two that it had published recently addressing the ethical concerns of human germline editing, the other by a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. Both papers’ authors had requested that their writing come out ahead of a major gene editing summit taking place this week in Hong Kong. When half-rumors of He’s covert work reached Barrangou over the weekend, his team discussed pulling the paper, but ultimately decided that there was nothing too solid to discredit it, based on the information available at the time.

Now Barrangou and his team are rethinking that decision. For one thing, He did not disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard practice among respectable journals. It’s since become clear that not only is He at the helm of several genetics companies in China, He was actively pursuing controversial human research long before writing up a scientific and moral code to guide it.“We’re currently assessing whether the omission was a matter of ill-management or ill-intent,” says Barrangou, who added that the journal is now conducting an audit to see if a retraction might be warranted. …

“There are all sorts of questions these issues raise, but the most fundamental is the risk-benefit ratio for the babies who are going to be born,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. “And the risk-benefit ratio on this stinks. Any institutional review board that approved it should be disbanded if not jailed.”

Reporting by Stat indicates that He may have just gotten in over his head and tried to cram a self-guided ethics education into a few short months. The young scientist—records indicate He is just 34—has a background in biophysics, with stints studying in the US at Rice University and in bioengineer Stephen Quake’s lab at Stanford. His resume doesn’t read like someone steeped deeply in the nuances and ethics of human research. Barrangou says that came across in the many rounds of edits He’s framework went through.

… China’s central government in Beijing has yet to come down one way or another. Condemnation would make He a rogue and a scientific outcast. Anything else opens the door for a Crispr IVF cottage industry to emerge in China and potentially elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine this was the only group in the world doing this,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis who wrote a book on the future of designer babies called GMO Sapiens. “Some might say this broke the ice. Will others forge ahead and go public with their results or stop what they’re doing and see how this plays out?”

Here’s some of the very latest information with the researcher attempting to explain himself.

What does He have to say?

After He’s appearance at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing today, Nov. 27, 2018, David Cyranoski produced this article for Nature,

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have helped produce the first people born with edited genomes — twin girls — appeared today at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong to explain his experiment. He gave his talk amid threats of legal action and mounting questions, from the scientific community and beyond, about the ethics of his work and the way in which he released the results.

He had never before presented his work publicly outside of a handful of videos he posted on YouTube. Scientists welcomed the fact that he appeared at all — but his talk left many hungry for more answers, and still not completely certain that He has achieved what he claims.

“There’s no reason not to believe him,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “I’m just not completely convinced.”

Lovell-Badge, like others at the conference, says that an independent body should confirm the test results by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and childrens’ genes.

Many scientists faulted He for a lack of transparency and the seemingly cavalier nature in which he embarked on such a landmark, and potentially risky, project.

“I’m happy he came but I was really horrified and stunned when he described the process he used,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing technique that He used. “It was so inappropriate on so many levels.”

He seemed shaky approaching the stage and nervous during the talk. “I think he was scared,” says Matthew Porteus, who researches genome-editing at Stanford University in California and co-hosted a question-and-answer session with He after his presentation. Porteus attributes this either to the legal pressures that He faces or the mounting criticism from the scientists and media he was about to address.

He’s talk leaves a host of other questions unanswered, including whether the prospective parents were properly informed of the risks; why He selected CCR5 when there are other, proven ways to prevent HIV; why he chose to do the experiment with couples in which the fathers have HIV, rather than mothers who have a higher chance of passing the virus on to their children; and whether the risks of knocking out CCR5 — a gene normally present in people, which could have necessary but still unknown functions — outweighed the benefits in this case.

In the discussion following He’s talk, one scientist asked why He proceeded with the experiments despite the clear consensus among scientists worldwide that such research shouldn’t be done. He didn’t answer the question.

He’s attempts to justify his actions mainly fell flat. In response to questions about why the science community had not been informed of the experiments before the first women were impregnated, he cited presentations that he gave last year at meetings at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. But Doudna, who organized the Berkeley meeting, says He did not present anything that showed he was ready to experiment in people. She called his defence “disingenuous at best”.

He also said he discussed the human experiment with unnamed scientists in the United States. But Porteus says that’s not enough for such an extraordinary experiment: “You need feedback not from your two closest friends but from the whole community.” …

Pressure was mounting on He ahead of the presentation. On 27 November, the Chinese national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, in the province where He’s university is located, to investigate.

On the same day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a statement condemning his work, and the Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research jointly issued a statement saying the experiment “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law”.

The hospital cited in China’s clinical-trial registry as the that gave ethical approval for He’s work posted a press release on 27 November saying it did not give any approval. It questioned the signatures on the approval form and said that the hospital’s medical-ethics committee never held a meeting related to He’s research. The hospital, which itself is under investigation by the Shenzhen health authorities following He’s revelations, wrote: “The Company does not condone the means of the Claimed Project, and has reservations as to the accuracy, reliability and truthfulness of its contents and results.”

He has not yet responded to requests for comment on these statements and investigations, nor on why the hospital was listed in the registry and the claim of apparent forged signatures.

Alice Park’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Time magazine includes an embedded video of He’s Nov. 27, 2018 presentation at the summit meeting.

What about the politics?

Mara Hvistendahl’s Nov. 27, 2018 article about this research for Slate.com poses some geopolitical questions (Note: Links have been removed),

The informed consent agreement for He Jiankui’s experiment describes it as an “AIDS vaccine development project” and used highly technical language to describe the procedure that patients would undergo. If the reality for some Chinese patients is that such agreements are glossed over, densely written, or never read, the reality for some researchers working in the country is that the appeal of cutting-edge trials is too great to resist. It is not just Chinese scientists who can be blinded by the lure of quick breakthroughs. Several of the most notable breaches of informed consent on the mainland have involved Western researchers or co-authors. … When people say that the usual rules don’t apply in China, they are really referring to authoritarian science, not some alternative communitarian ethics.

For the many scientists in China who adhere to recognized international standards, the incident comes as a disgrace. He Jiankui now faces an ethics investigation from provincial health authorities, and his institution, Southern University of Science and Technology, was quick to issue a statement noting that He was on unpaid leave. …

It would seem that US [and from elsewhere]* scientists wanting to avoid pesky ethics requirements in the US have found that going to China could be the answer to their problems. I gather it’s not just big business that prefers deregulated environments.

Guillaume Levrier’s  (he’ studying for a PhD at the Universté Sorbonne Paris Cité) November 16, 2018 essay for The Conversation sheds some light on political will and its impact on science (Note: Links have been removed),

… China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. …

One other thing from Levrier’s essay,

… And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, …

Do read the essay; there’s a twist at the end.

Final thoughts and some links

If I read this material rightly, there are suspicions there may be more of this work being done in China and elsewhere. In short, we likely don’t have the whole story.

As for the ethical issues, this is a discussion among experts only, so far. The great unwashed (thee and me) are being left at the wayside. Sure, we’ll be invited to public consultations, one day,  after the big decisions have been made.

Anyone who’s read up on the history of science will tell you this kind of breach is very common at the beginning. Richard Holmes’  2008 book, ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ recounts stories of early scientists (European science) who did crazy things. Some died, some shortened their life spans; and, some irreversibly damaged their health.  They also experimented on other people. Informed consent had not yet been dreamed up.

In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the largest human clinical trial in history was held in Canada. The small pox vaccine was highly contested in the US but the Canadian government thought it was a good idea so they offered US scientists the option of coming here to vaccinate Canadian babies. This was in the 1950s and the vaccine seems to have been administered almost universally. That was a lot of Canadian babies. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out but it does seem mind-boggling today.

For all the indignation and shock we’re seeing, this is not the first time nor will it be the last time someone steps over a line in order to conduct scientific research. And, that is the eternal problem.

Meanwhile I think some of the real action regarding CRISPR and germline editing is taking place in the field (pun!) of agriculture:

My Nov. 27, 2018 posting titled: ‘Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)‘ and a more disturbing Nov. 27, 2018 post titled: ‘Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon‘. That second posting features a company which is trying to sell its gene-editing services to farmers who would like cows that  never grow horns and pigs that never reach puberty.

Then there’s this ,

The Genetic Revolution‘, a documentary that offers relatively up-to-date information about gene editing, which was broadcast on Nov. 11, 2018 as part of The Nature of Things series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

My July 17, 2018 posting about research suggesting that scientists hadn’t done enough research on possible effects of CRISPR editing titled: ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle’.

My 2017 three-part series on CRISPR and germline editing:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

There you have it.

Added on November 30, 2018: David Cyanowski has written one final article (Nov. 30, 2018 for Nature) about He and the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He did not make his second scheduled appearance at the summit, returning to China before the summit concluded. He was rebuked in a statement produced by the Summit’s organizing committee at the end of the three-day meeting. The situation with regard to his professional status in China is ambiguous. Cyanowski ends his piece with the information that the third summit will take place in London (likely in the UK) in 2021. I encourage you to read Cyanowski’s Nov. 30, 2018 article in its entirety; it’s not long.

Added on Dec. 3, 2018: The story continues. Ed Yong has written a summary of the issues to date in a Dec. 3, 2018 article for The Atlantic (even if you know the story ift’s eyeopening to see all the parts put together.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU) and Jason Scott Robert, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University have written a provocative (and true) Dec. 3, 2018 essay titled, CRISPR babies raise an uncomfortable reality – abiding by scientific standards doesn’t guarantee ethical research, for The Conversation. h/t phys.org

*[and from elsewhere] added January 17, 2019.

Added on January 23, 2019: He has been fired by his university (Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen) as announced on January 21, 2019.  David Cyranoski provides a details accounting in his January 22, 2019 article for Nature.

I found it at the movies: a commentary on/review of “Films from the Future”

Kudos to anyone who recognized the reference to Pauline Kael (she changed film criticism forever) and her book “I Lost it at the Movies.” Of course, her book title was a bit of sexual innuendo, quite risqué for an important film critic in 1965 but appropriate for a period (the 1960s) associated with a sexual revolution. (There’s more about the 1960’s sexual revolution in the US along with mention of a prior sexual revolution in the 1920s in this Wikipedia entry.)

The title for this commentary is based on an anecdote from Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of the Arizona State University [ASU] Risk Innovation Lab) popular science and technology book, “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”

The ‘title-inspiring’ anecdote concerns Maynard’s first viewing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey, when as a rather “bratty” 16-year-old who preferred to read science fiction, he discovered new ways of seeing and imaging the world. Maynard isn’t explicit about when he became a ‘techno nerd’ or how movies gave him an experience books couldn’t but presumably at 16 he was already gearing up for a career in the sciences. That ‘movie’ revelation received in front of a black and white television on January 1,1982 eventually led him to write, “Films from the Future.” (He has a PhD in physics which he is now applying to the field of risk innovation. For a more detailed description of Dr. Maynard and his work, there’s his ASU profile webpage and, of course, the introduction to his book.)

The book is quite timely. I don’t know how many people have noticed but science and scientific innovation is being covered more frequently in the media than it has been in many years. Science fairs and festivals are being founded on what seems to be a daily basis and you can now find science in art galleries. (Not to mention the movies and television where science topics are covered in comic book adaptations, in comedy, and in standard science fiction style.) Much of this activity is centered on what’s called ’emerging technologies’. These technologies are why people argue for what’s known as ‘blue sky’ or ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ science for without that science there would be no emerging technology.

Films from the Future

Isn’t reading the Table of Contents (ToC) the best way to approach a book? (From Films from the Future; Note: The formatting has been altered),

Table of Contents
Chapter One
In the Beginning 14
Beginnings 14
Welcome to the Future 16
The Power of Convergence 18
Socially Responsible Innovation 21
A Common Point of Focus 25
Spoiler Alert 26
Chapter Two
Jurassic Park: The Rise of Resurrection Biology 27
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World 27
De-Extinction 31
Could We, Should We? 36
The Butterfly Effect 39
Visions of Power 43
Chapter Three
Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning 46
Sins of Futures Past 46
Cloning 51
Genuinely Human? 56
Too Valuable to Fail? 62
Chapter Four
Minority Report: Predicting Criminal Intent 64
Criminal Intent 64
The “Science” of Predicting Bad Behavior 69
Criminal Brain Scans 74
Machine Learning-Based Precognition 77
Big Brother, Meet Big Data 79
Chapter Five
Limitless: Pharmaceutically-enhanced Intelligence 86
A Pill for Everything 86
The Seduction of Self-Enhancement 89
Nootropics 91
If You Could, Would You? 97
Privileged Technology 101
Our Obsession with Intelligence 105
Chapter Six
Elysium: Social Inequity in an Age of Technological
Extremes 110
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth 110
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies 115
The Disposable Workforce 119
Living in an Automated Future 124
Chapter Seven
Ghost in the Shell: Being Human in an
Augmented Future 129
Through a Glass Darkly 129
Body Hacking 135
More than “Human”? 137
Plugged In, Hacked Out 142
Your Corporate Body 147
Chapter Eight
Ex Machina: AI and the Art of Manipulation 154
Plato’s Cave 154
The Lure of Permissionless Innovation 160
Technologies of Hubris 164
Superintelligence 169
Defining Artificial Intelligence 172
Artificial Manipulation 175
Chapter Nine
Transcendence: Welcome to the Singularity 180
Visions of the Future 180
Technological Convergence 184
Enter the Neo-Luddites 190
Techno-Terrorism 194
Exponential Extrapolation 200
Make-Believe in the Age of the Singularity 203
Chapter Ten
The Man in the White Suit: Living in a Material World 208
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 208
Mastering the Material World 213
Myopically Benevolent Science 220
Never Underestimate the Status Quo 224
It’s Good to Talk 227
Chapter Eleven
Inferno: Immoral Logic in an Age of
Genetic Manipulation 231
Decoding Make-Believe 231
Weaponizing the Genome 234
Immoral Logic? 238
The Honest Broker 242
Dictating the Future 248
Chapter Twelve
The Day After Tomorrow: Riding the Wave of
Climate Change 251
Our Changing Climate 251
Fragile States 255
A Planetary “Microbiome” 258
The Rise of the Anthropocene 260
Building Resiliency 262
Geoengineering the Future 266
Chapter Thirteen
Contact: Living by More than Science Alone 272
An Awful Waste of Space 272
More than Science Alone 277
Occam’s Razor 280
What If We’re Not Alone? 283
Chapter Fourteen
Looking to the Future 288
Acknowledgments 293

The ToC gives the reader a pretty clue as to where the author is going with their book and Maynard explains how he chose his movies in his introductory chapter (from Films from the Future),

“There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, and materials-based technologies, and they illuminate a broader landscape around our evolving relationship with science and technology. And, to be honest, they are all movies that I get a kick out of watching.” (p. 17)

Jurassic Park (Chapter Two)

Dinosaurs do not interest me—they never have. Despite my profound indifference I did see the movie, Jurassic Park, when it was first released (someone talked me into going). And, I am still profoundly indifferent. Thankfully, Dr. Maynard finds meaning and a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong. (p. 28)

What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused. These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technologyenabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.  (pp. 30-1)

He also describes a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

De-Extinction

In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans
coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.

The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the
father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through
the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for deextinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.9

Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.

The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue
that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.

Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on
the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.

An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.

Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.

The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct
individual members of it.

The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you
need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning,
scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come
back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of
achieving this.

What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.

One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others
have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.

Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.

The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.

It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. … (pp. 31-4)

This selection illustrates what Maynard does so very well throughout the book where he uses each film as a launching pad for a clear, readable description of relevant bits of science so you understand why the premise was likely, unlikely, or pure fantasy while linking it to contemporary practices, efforts, and issues. In the context of Jurassic Park, Maynard goes on to raise some fascinating questions such as: Should we revive animals rendered extinct (due to obsolescence or inability to adapt to new conditions) when we could develop new animals?

General thoughts

‘Films for the Future’ offers readable (to non-scientific types) science, lively writing, and the occasional ‘memorish’ anecdote. As well, Dr. Maynard raises the curtain on aspects of the scientific enterprise that most of us do not get to see.  For example, the meeting  between Sergey Zimov and George Church and how it led to new ‘de-extinction’ work’. He also describes the problems that the scientists encountered and are encountering. This is in direct contrast to how scientific work is usually presented in the news media as one glorious breakthrough after the next.

Maynard does discuss the issues of social inequality and power and ownership. For example, who owns your transplant or data? Puzzlingly, he doesn’t touch on the current environment where scientists in the US and elsewhere are encouraged/pressured to start up companies commercializing their work.

Nor is there any mention of how universities are participating in this grand business experiment often called ‘innovation’. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes an outcome for the CRISPR [gene editing system] patent fight taking place between Harvard University’s & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley and my Sept. 11, 2018 posting about an art/science exhibit in Vancouver [Canada] provides an update for round 2 of the Broad Institute vs. UC Berkeley patent fight [scroll down about 65% of the way.) *To read about how my ‘cultural blindness’ shows up here scroll down to the single asterisk at the end.*

There’s a foray through machine-learning and big data as applied to predictive policing in Maynard’s ‘Minority Report’ chapter (my November 23, 2017 posting describes Vancouver’s predictive policing initiative [no psychics involved], the first such in Canada). There’s no mention of surveillance technology, which if I recall properly was part of the future environment, both by the state and by corporations. (Mia Armstrong’s November 15, 2018 article for Slate on Chinese surveillance being exported to Venezuela provides interesting insight.)

The gaps are interesting and various. This of course points to a problem all science writers have when attempting an overview of science. (Carl Zimmer’s latest, ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’] a doorstopping 574 pages, also has some gaps despite his focus on heredity,)

Maynard has worked hard to give an comprehensive overview in a remarkably compact 279 pages while developing his theme about science and the human element. In other words, science is not monolithic; it’s created by human beings and subject to all the flaws and benefits that humanity’s efforts are always subject to—scientists are people too.

The readership for ‘Films from the Future’ spans from the mildly interested science reader to someone like me who’s been writing/blogging about these topics (more or less) for about 10 years. I learned a lot reading this book.

Next time, I’m hopeful there’ll be a next time, Maynard might want to describe the parameters he’s set for his book in more detail that is possible in his chapter headings. He could have mentioned that he’s not a cinéaste so his descriptions of the movies are very much focused on the story as conveyed through words. He doesn’t mention colour palates, camera angles, or, even, cultural lenses.

Take for example, his chapter on ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Focused on the Japanese animation film and not the live action Hollywood version he talks about human enhancement and cyborgs. The Japanese have a different take on robots, inanimate objects, and, I assume, cyborgs than is found in Canada or the US or Great Britain, for that matter (according to a colleague of mine, an Englishwoman who lived in Japan for ten or more years). There’s also the chapter on the Ealing comedy, The Man in The White Suit, an English film from the 1950’s. That too has a cultural (as well as, historical) flavour but since Maynard is from England, he may take that cultural flavour for granted. ‘Never let me go’ in Chapter Two was also a UK production, albeit far more recent than the Ealing comedy and it’s interesting to consider how a UK production about cloning might differ from a US or Chinese or … production on the topic. I am hearkening back to Maynard’s anecdote about movies giving him new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

There’s a corrective. A couple of sentences in Maynard’s introductory chapter cautioning that in depth exploration of ‘cultural lenses’ was not possible without expanding the book to an unreadable size followed by a sentence in each of the two chapters that there are cultural differences.

One area where I had a significant problem was with regard to being “programmed” and having  “instinctual” behaviour,

As a species, we are embarrassingly programmed to see “different” as “threatening,” and to take instinctive action against it. It’s a trait that’s exploited in many science fiction novels and movies, including those in this book. If we want to see the rise of increasingly augmented individuals, we need to be prepared for some social strife. (p. 136)

These concepts are much debated in the social sciences and there are arguments for and against ‘instincts regarding strangers and their possible differences’. I gather Dr. Maynard hies to the ‘instinct to defend/attack’ school of thought.

One final quandary, there was no sex and I was expecting it in the Ex Machina chapter, especially now that sexbots are about to take over the world (I exaggerate). Certainly, if you’re talking about “social strife,” then sexbots would seem to be fruitful line of inquiry, especially when there’s talk of how they could benefit families (my August 29, 2018 posting). Again, there could have been a sentence explaining why Maynard focused almost exclusively in this chapter on the discussions about artificial intelligence and superintelligence.

Taken in the context of the book, these are trifling issues and shouldn’t stop you from reading Films from the Future. What Maynard has accomplished here is impressive and I hope it’s just the beginning.

Final note

Bravo Andrew! (Note: We’ve been ‘internet acquaintances/friends since the first year I started blogging. When I’m referring to him in his professional capacity, he’s Dr. Maynard and when it’s not strictly in his professional capacity, it’s Andrew. For this commentary/review I wanted to emphasize his professional status.)

If you need to see a few more samples of Andrew’s writing, there’s a Nov. 15, 2018 essay on The Conversation, Sci-fi movies are the secret weapon that could help Silicon Valley grow up and a Nov. 21, 2018 article on slate.com, The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants; The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. Enjoy.

****Added at 1700 hours on Nov. 22, 2018: You can purchase Films from the Future here.

*Nov. 23, 2018: I should have been more specific and said ‘academic scientists’. In Canada, the great percentage of scientists are academic. It’s to the point where the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has noted that amongst industrialized countries, Canada has very few industrial scientists in comparison to the others.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself?

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,[2] 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.[3] 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.[2]

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.[2][4][1] 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.[5] 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.[6][7] In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.[8]

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.[2] This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.[9]

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.[10] Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.[11]

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.

Zayner sells a full home biohacking lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. [Photo: The ODIN]

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,[1] 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[2] “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.”[3] 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.

Canadian content*

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 [2017] 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.

Nucleic acid-based memory storage

We’re running out of memory. To be more specific, there are two problems: the supply of silicon and a limit to how much silicon-based memory can store. An April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces a nucleic acid-based approach to solving the memory problem,

A group of Boise State [Boise State University in Idaho, US] researchers, led by associate professor of materials science and engineering and associate dean of the College of Innovation and Design Will Hughes, is working toward a better way to store digital information using nucleic acid memory (NAM).

An April 25, 2016 Boise State University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme of computer memory and provides more details about the approach,

It’s no secret that as a society we generate vast amounts of data each year. So much so that the 30 billion watts of electricity used annually by server farms today is roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.

And the demand keeps growing. The global flash memory market is predicted to reach $30.2 billion this year, potentially growing to $80.3 billion by 2025. Experts estimate that by 2040, the demand for global memory will exceed the projected supply of silicon (the raw material used to store flash memory). Furthermore, electronic memory is rapidly approaching its fundamental size limits because of the difficulty in storing electrons in small dimensions.

Hughes, with post-doctoral researcher Reza Zadegan and colleagues Victor Zhirnov (Semiconductor Research Corporation), Gurtej Sandhun (Micron Technology Inc.) and George Church (Harvard University), is looking to DNA molecules to solve the problem. Nucleic acid — the “NA” in “DNA” — far surpasses electronic memory in retention time, according to the researchers, while also providing greater information density and energy of operation.

Their conclusions are outlined in an invited commentary in the prestigious journal Nature Materials published earlier this month.

“DNA is the data storage material of life in general,” said Hughes. “Because of its physical and chemical properties, it also may become the data storage material of our lives.” It may sound like science fiction, but Hughes will participate in an invitation-only workshop this month at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) Agency to envision a portable DNA hard drive that would have 500 Terabytes of searchable data – that’s about the the size of the Library of Congress Web Archive.

“When information bits are encoded into polymer strings, researchers and manufacturers can manage and manipulate physical, chemical and biological information with standard molecular biology techniques,” the paper [in Nature Materials?] states.

Cost-competitive technologies to read and write DNA could lead to real-world applications ranging from artificial chromosomes, digital hard drives and information-management systems, to a platform for watermarking and tracking genetic content or next-generation encryption tools that necessitate physical rather than electronic embodiment.

Here’s how it works. Current binary code uses 0’s and 1’s to represent bits of information. A computer program then accesses a specific decoder to turn the numbers back into usable data. With nucleic acid memory, 0’s and 1’s are replaced with the nucleotides A, T, C and G. Known as monomers, they are covalently bonded to form longer polymer chains, also known as information strings.

Because of DNA’s superior ability to store data, DNA can contain all the information in the world in a small box measuring 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters cubed. NAM could thus be used as a sustainable time capsule for massive, scientific, financial, governmental, historical, genealogical, personal and genetic records.

Better yet, DNA can store digital information for a very long time – thousands to millions of years. Currently, usable information has been extracted from DNA in bones that are 700,000 years old, making nucleic acid memory a promising archival material. And nucleic acid memory uses 100 million times less energy than storing data electronically in flash, and the data can live on for generations.

At Boise State, Hughes and Zadegan are examining DNA’s stability under extreme conditions. DNA strands are subjected to temperatures varying from negative 20 degrees Celsius to 100 degrees Celsius, and to a variety of UV exposures to see if they can still retain their information. What they’re finding is that much less information is lost with NAM than with the current state of the industry.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Nature Materials paper,

Nucleic acid memory by Victor Zhirnov, Reza M. Zadegan, Gurtej S. Sandhu, George M. Church, & William L. Hughes. Nature Materials 15, 366–370 (2016)  doi:10.1038/nmat4594 Published online 23 March 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Toggling atomic switches and other talks at the Foresight Institute’s 2013 technical conference

The correct title for the conference, which took place almost one year ago (Jan. 11-13, 2013 in Palo Alto, California, US, is the 2013 Foresight Technical Conference: Illuminating Atomic Precision, and the organizers, the Foresight Institute in a Dec. 2, 2013 posting by James Lewis have announced a number of conference videos have been made available and have provided a transcript of sorts for one of the videos,

A select set of videos from the 2013 Foresight Technical Conference: Illuminating Atomic Precision, held January 11-13, 2013 in Palo Alto, have been made available on vimeo. Videos have been posted of those presentations for which the speakers have consented. Other presentations contained confidential information and will not be posted.

Here’s a listing of the 2013 conference presentations made available (click to access the videos),

  • Larry Millstein: Introductory comments at Foresight Technical Conference 2013
  • J. Fraser Stoddart: Introductory comments at Foresight Technical Conference 2013
  • Leonhard Grill: “Assembly and Manipulation of Molecules at the Atomic Scale”
  • John Randall: “Atomically Precise Manufacturing”
  • Philip Moriarty: “Mechanical Atom Manipulation: Towards a Matter Compiler?”
  • David Soloveichik: “DNA Displacement Cascades”
  • Alex Wissner-Gross: “Bringing Computational Programmability to Nanostructured Surfaces”
  • Joseph Puglisi: “Deciphering the Molecular Choreography of Translation”
  • Feynman Awards Banquet at Foresight Technical Conference 2013
  • Gerhard Klimeck: “Multi-Million Atom Simulations for Single Atom Transistor Structures”
  • William Goddard: “Nanoscale Materials, Devices, and Processing Predicted from First Principals” [Note: He’s a wearing a jaunty beret adding a note of style not usually found at technical conferences.]
  • Gerhard Klimeck: “Mythbusting Knowledge Transfer Mechanisms through Science Gateways”
  • Art Olson: “New Methods of Exploring, Analyzing, and Predicting Molecular Interactions”
  • George Church: “Regenesis: Bionano”
  • Dean Astumian: “Microscopic Reversibility: The Organizing Principle for Molecular Machines”
  • Larry Millstein: Closing comments at Foresight Technical Conference 2013

In his Foresight Institute blog posting  Lewis goes on to offer a description of Philip Moriarty’s presentation “Mechanical Atom Manipulation: Towards a Matter Compiler?,”

Prof. Moriarty presented his work with the qPlus technique of non-contact AFM of semiconductors, using chemical forces to mechanically move atoms around to structure matter, focusing on the tip of the probe—specifically how to optimize the tip structure, and how to return the tip to a previously known state. He begins with a brief review of how non-contact AFM uses a damped, driven oscillator to measure and manipulate what is happening at the level of single chemical bonds. The tip at the end of the oscillating cantilever measures the frequency shift of the cantilever as it approaches and interacts with the surface, and it maintains a constant amplitude of oscillation by pumping energy into the system. The frequency shift provides information about conservative forces acting on the tip, and the amount of energy pumped in gives a handle on non-conservative, or dissipative, forces. Before diving into the experimental details of his own work, Prof. Moriarty noted that various experimental accomplishments have vindicated Eric Drexler’s assertion that single atom chemistry could be done using purely mechanical force.

I found this description to be a beautiful piece of technical writing although I do have to admit to being distracted by thoughts of Sherlock Holmes on reading “Prof. Moriarty.” One final note, I noted the reference to Eric Drexler in the last sentence of my excerpt as Drexler was a Foresight Institute founder amongst his many other accomplishments.