Tag Archives: Malcolm Dando

A transatlantic report highlighting the risks and opportunities associated with synthetic biology and bioengineering

I love e-Life, the open access journal where its editors noted that a submitted synthetic biology and bioengineering report was replete with US and UK experts (along with a European or two) but no expert input from other parts of the world. In response the authors added ‘transatlantic’ to the title. It was a good decision since it was too late to add any new experts if the authors planned to have their paper published in the foreseeable future.

I’ve commented many times here when panels of experts include only Canadian, US, UK, and, sometimes, European or Commonwealth (Australia/New Zealand) experts that we need to broaden our perspectives and now I can add: or at least acknowledge (e.g. transatlantic) that the perspectives taken are reflective of a rather narrow range of countries.

Now getting to the report, here’s more from a November 21, 2017 University of Cambridge press release,

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But as a new article out today highlights, these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing ‘real-world’ problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems [emphasis mine], potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic ‘cloud labs’ where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases—such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks—and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates, and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Dr Jenny Molloy comments: “One theme that emerged repeatedly was that of inequality of access to the technology and its benefits. The rise of open source, off-patent tools could enable widespread sharing of knowledge within the biological engineering field and increase access to benefits for those in developing countries.”

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research adds: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Christian R. Boehm concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus—whatever the public health benefits—could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research was made possible by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (both at the University of Cambridge), and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford). It was based on a workshop co-funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

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

A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering by Bonnie C Wintle, Christian R Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling, Rob Carlson, Rocco Casagrande, Malcolm Dando, Robert Doubleday, Eric Drexler, Brett Edwards, Tom Ellis, Nicholas G Evans, Richard Hammond, Jim Haseloff, Linda Kahl, Todd Kuiken, Benjamin R Lichman, Colette A Matthewman, Johnathan A Napier, Seán S ÓhÉigeartaigh, Nicola J Patron, Edward Perello, Philip Shapira, Joyce Tait, Eriko Takano, William J Sutherland. eLife; 14 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.30247

This paper is open access and the editors have included their notes to the authors and the authors’ response.

You may have noticed that I highlighted a portion of the text concerning synthetic gene drives. Coincidentally I ran across a November 16, 2017 article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic where the topic is discussed within the context of a project in New Zealand, ‘Predator Free 2050’ (Note: A link has been removed),

Until the 13th century, the only land mammals in New Zealand were bats. In this furless world, local birds evolved a docile temperament. Many of them, like the iconic kiwi and the giant kakapo parrot, lost their powers of flight. Gentle and grounded, they were easy prey for the rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, and possums that were later introduced by humans. Between them, these predators devour more than 26 million chicks and eggs every year. They have already driven a quarter of the nation’s unique birds to extinction.

Many species now persist only in offshore islands where rats and their ilk have been successfully eradicated, or in small mainland sites like Zealandia where they are encircled by predator-proof fences. The songs in those sanctuaries are echoes of the New Zealand that was.

But perhaps, they also represent the New Zealand that could be.

In recent years, many of the country’s conservationists and residents have rallied behind Predator-Free 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the country’s birds by eradicating its invasive predators. Native birds of prey will be unharmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s research strategy, which is released today, spells doom for rats, possums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No country, anywhere in the world, has managed such a task in an area that big. The largest island ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times bigger. But, the country has committed to fulfilling its ecological moonshot within three decades.

In 2014, Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at MIT, drew a Venn diagram that troubles him to this day. In it, he and his colleagues laid out several possible uses for gene drives—a nascent technology for spreading designer genes through groups of wild animals. Typically, a given gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed to the next generation. But gene drives turn that coin toss into a guarantee, allowing traits to zoom through populations in just a few generations. There are a few natural examples, but with CRISPR, scientists can deliberately engineer such drives.

Suppose you have a population of rats, roughly half of which are brown, and the other half white. Now, imagine there is a gene that affects each rat’s color. It comes in two forms, one leading to brown fur, and the other leading to white fur. A male with two brown copies mates with a female with two white copies, and all their offspring inherit one of each. Those offspring breed themselves, and the brown and white genes continue cascading through the generations in a 50-50 split. This is the usual story of inheritance. But you can subvert it with CRISPR, by programming the brown gene to cut its counterpart and replace it with another copy of itself. Now, the rats’ children are all brown-furred, as are their grandchildren, and soon the whole population is brown.

Forget fur. The same technique could spread an antimalarial gene through a mosquito population, or drought-resistance through crop plants. The applications are vast, but so are the risks. In theory, gene drives spread so quickly and relentlessly that they could rewrite an entire wild population, and once released, they would be hard to contain. If the concept of modifying the genes of organisms is already distasteful to some, gene drives magnify that distaste across national, continental, and perhaps even global scales.

These excerpts don’t do justice to this thought-provoking article. If you have time, I recommend reading it in its entirety  as it provides some insight into gene drives and, with some imagination on the reader’s part, the potential for the other technologies discussed in the report.

One last comment, I notice that Eric Drexler is cited as on the report’s authors. He’s familiar to me as K. Eric Drexler, the author of the book that popularized nanotechnology in the US and other countries, Engines of Creation (1986) .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genome editing is a weapon of mass destruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Revill notes the latest BWC agreement and suggests future directions,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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