Tag Archives: Arizona State University (ASU)

July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation

This was going to be written for January 2020 but sometimes things happen (e.g., a two-part overview of science culture in Canada from 2010-19 morphed into five parts with an addendum and, then, a pandemic). By now (July 28, 2020), Dr. He’s sentencing to three years in jail announced by the Chinese government in January 2020 is old news.

Regardless, it seems a neat and tidy ending to an international scientific scandal concerned with germline-editing which resulted in at least one set of twins, Lulu and Nana. He claimed to have introduced a variant (“Delta 32” variation) of their CCR5 gene. This does occur naturally and scientists have noted that people with this mutation seem to be resistant to HIV and smallpox.

For those not familiar with the events surrounding the announcement, here’s a brief recap. News of the world’s first gene-edited twins’ birth was announced in November 2018 just days before an international meeting group of experts who had agreed on a moratorium in 2015 on exactly that kind of work. The scientist making the announcement about the twins was scheduled for at least one presentation at the meeting, which was to be held in Hong Kong. He did give his presentation but left the meeting shortly afterwards as shock was beginning to abate and fierce criticism was rising. My November 28, 2018 posting (First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story) offers a timeline of sorts and my initial response.

I subsequently followed up with two mores posts as the story continued to develop. My May 17, 2019 posting (Genes, intelligence, Chinese CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) babies, and other children) featured news that Dr. He’s gene-editing may have resulted in the twins having improved cognitive skills. Then, more news broke. The title for my June 20, 2019 posting (Greater mortality for the CRISPR twins Lulu and Nana?) is self-explanatory.

I have roughly organized my sources for this posting into two narratives, which I’m contrasting with each other. First, there is one found in the mainstream media (English language), ‘The Popular Narrative’. Second, there is story where Dr. He is viewed more sympathetically and as part of a larger community where there isn’t nearly as much consensus over what should or shouldn’t be done as ‘the popular narrative’ insists.

The popular narrative: Dr. He was a rogue scientist

A December 30, 2019 article for Fast Company by Kristin Toussaint lays out the latest facts (Note: A link has been removed),

… Now, a court in China has sentenced He to three years in prison, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run press agency, for “illegal medical practices.”

The court in China’s southern city of Shenzhen says that He’s team, which included colleagues Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou from two medical institutes in Guangdong Province, falsified ethical approval documents and violated China’s “regulations and ethical principles” with their gene-editing work. Zhang was sentenced to two years in jail, and Qin to 18 months with a two-year reprieve, according to Xinhau.

Ian Sample’s December 31, 2020 article for the Guardian offers more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The court in Shenzhen found He guilty of “illegal medical practices” and in addition to the prison sentence fined him 3m yuan (£327,360), according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Two others on He’s research team received lesser fines and sentences.

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practise medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said, according to Xinhua. “They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

[…] the court found He had forged documents from an ethics review panel that were used to recruit couples for the research. The couples that enrolled had a man with HIV and a woman without and were offered IVF in return for taking part.

Zhang Renli, who worked with He, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1m yuan. Colleague Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.

He’s experiments, which were carried out on seven embryos in late 2018, sent shockwaves through the medical and scientific world. The work was swiftly condemned for deceiving vulnerable patients and using a risky, untested procedure with no medical justification. Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review released excerpts from an early manuscript of He’s work. It casts serious doubts on his claims to have made the children immune to HIV.

Even as the scientific community turned against He, the scientist defended his work and said he was proud of having created Lulu and Nana. A third child has since been born as a result of the experiments.

Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London said it was “far too premature” for anyone to pursue genome editing on embryos that are intended to lead to pregnancies. “At this stage we do not know if the methods will ever be sufficiently safe and efficient, although the relevant science is progressing rapidly, and new methods can look promising. It is also important to have standards established, including detailed regulatory pathways, and appropriate means of governance.”

A December 30, 2019 article, by Carolyn Y. Johnson for the Washington Post, covers much the same ground although it does go on to suggest that there might be some blame to spread around (Note: Links have been removed),

The Chinese researcher who stunned and alarmed the international scientific community with the announcement that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison by a court in China.

He Jiankui sparked a bioethical crisis last year when he claimed to have edited the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the birth of twins called Lulu and Nana as well as a possible third pregnancy. The gene editing, which was aimed at making the children immune to HIV, was excoriated by many scientists as a reckless experiment on human subjects that violated basic ethical principles.

The judicial proceedings were not public, and outside experts said it is hard to know what to make of the punishment without the release of the full investigative report or extensive knowledge of Chinese law and the conditions under which He will be incarcerated.

Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley who co-invented CRISPR, the gene editing technology that He utilized, has been outspoken in condemning the experiments and has repeatedly said CRISPR is not ready to be used for reproductive purposes.

R. Alta Charo, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, was among a small group of experts who had dinner with He the night before he unveiled his controversial research in Hong Kong in November 2018.

“He Jiankui is an example of somebody who fundamentally didn’t understand, or didn’t want to recognize, what have become international norms around responsible research,” Charo said. “My impression is he allowed his personal ambition to completely cloud rational thinking and judgment.”

Scientists have been testing an array of powerful biotechnology tools to fix genetic diseases in adults. There is tremendous excitement about the possibility of fixing genes that cause serious disease, and the first U.S. patients were treated with CRISPR this year.

But scientists have long drawn a clear moral line between curing genetic diseases in adults and editing and implanting human embryos, which raises the specter of “designer babies.” Those changes and any unanticipated ones could be inherited by future generations — in essence altering the human species.

“The fact that the individual at the center of the story has been punished for his role in it should not distract us from examining what supporting roles were played by others, particularly in the international scientific community and also the environment that shaped and encouraged him to push the limits,” said Benjamin Hurlbut [emphasis mine], associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

Stanford University cleared its scientists, including He’s former postdoctoral adviser, Stephen Quake, finding that Quake and others did not participate in the research and had expressed “serious concerns to Dr. He about his work.” A Rice University spokesman said an investigation continues into bioengineering professor Michael Deem, He’s former academic adviser. Deem was listed as a co-author on a paper called “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” submitted to scientific journals, according to MIT Technology Review.

It’s interesting that it’s only the Chinese scientists who are seen to be punished, symbolically at least. Meanwhile, Stanford clears its scientists of any wrongdoing and Rice University continues to investigate.

Watch for the Hurlbut name (son, Benjamin and father, William) to come up again in the ‘complex narrative’ section.

Criticism of the ‘twins’ CRISPR editing’ research

Antonio Regalado’s December 3, 2020 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review features comments from various experts on an unpublished draft of Dr. He Jiankui’s research

Earlier this year a source sent us a copy of an unpublished manuscript describing the creation of the first gene-edited babies, born last year in China. Today, we are making excerpts of that manuscript public for the first time.

Titled “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” and 4,699 words long, the still unpublished paper was authored by He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who created the edited twin girls. A second manuscript we also received discusses laboratory research on human and animal embryos.

The metadata in the files we were sent indicate that the two draft papers were edited by He in late November 2018 and appear to be what he initially submitted for publication. Other versions, including a combined manuscript, may also exist. After consideration by at least two prestigious journals, Nature and JAMA, his research remains unpublished.

The text of the twins paper is replete with expansive claims of a medical breakthrough that can “control the HIV epidemic.” It claims “success”—a word used more than once—in using a “novel therapy” to render the girls resistant to HIV. Yet surprisingly, it makes little attempt to prove that the twins really are resistant to the virus. And the text largely ignores data elsewhere in the paper suggesting that the editing went wrong.

We shared the unpublished manuscripts with four experts—a legal scholar, an IVF doctor, an embryologist, and a gene-editing specialist—and asked them for their reactions. Their views were damning. Among them: key claims that He and his team made are not supported by the data; the babies’ parents may have been under pressure to agree to join the experiment; the supposed medical benefits are dubious at best; and the researchers moved forward with creating living human beings before they fully understood the effects of the edits they had made.

1. Why aren’t the doctors among the paper’s authors?

The manuscript begins with a list of the authors—10 of them, mostly from He Jiankui’s lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology, but also including Hua Bai, director of an AIDS support network, who helped recruit couples, and Michael Deem, an American biophysicist whose role is under review by Rice University. (His attorney previously said Deem never agreed to submit the manuscript and sought to remove his name from it.)

It’s a small number of people for such a significant project, and one reason is that some names are missing—notably, the fertility doctors who treated the patients and the obstetrician who delivered the babies. Concealing them may be an attempt to obscure the identities of the patients. However, it also leaves unclear whether or not these doctors understood they were helping to create the first gene-edited babies.

To some, the question of whether the manuscript is trustworthy arises immediately.

Hank Greely, professor of law, Stanford University: We have no, or almost no, independent evidence for anything reported in this paper. Although I believe that the babies probably were DNA-edited and were born, there’s very little evidence for that. Given the circumstances of this case, I am not willing to grant He Jiankui the usual presumption of honesty. 

That last article by Regalado is the purest example I have of how fierce the criticism is and how almost all of it is focused on Dr. He and his Chinese colleagues.

A complex, measured narrative: multiple players in the game

The most sympathetic and, in many ways, the most comprehensive article is an August 1, 2019 piece by Jon Cohen for Science magazine (Note: Links have been removed),

On 10 June 2017, a sunny and hot Saturday in Shenzhen, China, two couples came to the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) to discuss whether they would participate in a medical experiment that no researcher had ever dared to conduct. The Chinese couples, who were having fertility problems, gathered around a conference table to meet with He Jiankui, a SUSTech biophysicist. Then 33, He (pronounced “HEH”) had a growing reputation in China as a scientist-entrepreneur but was little known outside the country. “We want to tell you some serious things that might be scary,” said He, who was trim from years of playing soccer and wore a gray collared shirt, his cuffs casually unbuttoned.

He simply meant the standard in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. But as the discussion progressed, He and his postdoc walked the couples through informed consent forms [emphasis mine] that described what many ethicists and scientists view as a far more frightening proposition. Seventeen months later, the experiment triggered an international controversy, and the worldwide scientific community rejected him. The scandal cost him his university position and the leadership of a biotech company he founded. Commentaries labeled He, who also goes by the nickname JK, a “rogue,” “China’s Frankenstein,” and “stupendously immoral.” [emphases mine]

But that day in the conference room, He’s reputation remained untarnished. As the couples listened and flipped through the forms, occasionally asking questions, two witnesses—one American, the other Chinese—observed [emphasis mine]. Another lab member shot video, which Science has seen [emphasis mine], of part of the 50-minute meeting. He had recruited those couples because the husbands were living with HIV infections kept under control by antiviral drugs. The IVF procedure would use a reliable process called sperm washing to remove the virus before insemination, so father-to-child transmission was not a concern. Rather, He sought couples who had endured HIV-related stigma and discrimination and wanted to spare their children that fate by dramatically reducing their risk of ever becoming infected. [emphasis mine]

He, who for much of his brief career had specialized in sequencing DNA, offered a potential solution: CRISPR, the genome-editing tool that was revolutionizing biology, could alter a gene in IVF embryos to cripple production of an immune cell surface protein, CCR5, that HIV uses to establish an infection. “This technique may be able to produce an IVF baby naturally immunized against AIDS,” one consent form read.[emphasis mine]

The couples’ children could also pass the protective mutation to future generations. The prospect of this irrevocable genetic change is why, since the advent of CRISPR as a genome editor 5 years earlier, the editing of human embryos, eggs, or sperm has been hotly debated. The core issue is whether such germline editing would cross an ethical red line because it could ultimately alter our species. Regulations, some with squishy language, arguably prohibited it in many countries, China included.

Yet opposition was not unanimous. A few months before He met the couples, a committee convened by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a well-publicized report that human trials of germline editing “might be permitted” if strict criteria were met. The group of scientists, lawyers, bioethicists, and patient advocates spelled out a regulatory framework but cautioned that “these criteria are necessarily vague” because various societies, caregivers, and patients would view them differently. The committee notably did not call for an international ban, arguing instead for governmental regulation as each country deemed appropriate and “voluntary self-regulation pursuant to professional guidelines.”

[…] He hid his plans and deceived his colleagues and superiors, as many people have asserted? A preliminary investigation in China stated that He had forged documents, “dodged supervision,” and misrepresented blood tests—even though no proof of those charges was released [emphasis mine], no outsiders were part of the inquiry, and He has not publicly admitted to any wrongdoing. (CRISPR scientists in China say the He fallout has affected their research.) Many scientists outside China also portrayed He as a rogue actor. “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency,” virologist David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize–winning researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and co-chair of the Hong Kong summit, thundered at He after the biophysicist’s only public talk on the experiment.

Because the Chinese government has revealed little and He is not talking, key questions about his actions are hard to answer. Many of his colleagues and confidants also ignored Science‘s requests for interviews. But Ryan Ferrell, a public relations specialist He hired, has cataloged five dozen people who were not part of the study but knew or suspected what He was doing before it became public. Ferrell calls it He’s circle of trust. [emphasis mine]

That circle included leading scientists—among them a Nobel laureate—in China and the United States, business executives, an entrepreneur connected to venture capitalists, authors of the NASEM report, a controversial U.S. IVF specialist [John Zhang] who discussed opening a gene-editing clinic with He [emphasis mine], and at least one Chinese politician. “He had an awful lot of company to be called a ‘rogue,’” says geneticist George Church [emphases mine], a CRISPR pioneer at Harvard University who was not in the circle of trust and is one of the few scientists to defend at least some aspects of He’s experiment.

Some people sharply criticized He when he brought them into the circle; others appear to have welcomed his plans or did nothing. Several went out of their way to distance themselves from He after the furor erupted. For example, the two onlookers in that informed consent meeting were Michael Deem, He’s Ph.D. adviser at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Yu Jun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and co-founder of the Beijing Genomics Institute, the famed DNA sequencing company in Shenzhen. Deem remains under investigation by Rice for his role in the experiment and would not speak with Science. In a carefully worded statement, Deem’s lawyers later said he “did not meet the parents of the reported CCR5-edited children, or anyone else whose embryos were edited.” But earlier, Deem cooperated with the Associated Press (AP) for its exclusive story revealing the birth of the babies, which reported that Deem was “present in China when potential participants gave their consent and that he ‘absolutely’ thinks they were able to understand the risks. [emphasis mine]”

Yu, who works at CAS’s Beijing Institute of Genomics, acknowledges attending the informed consent meeting with Deem, but he told Science he did not know that He planned to implant gene-edited embryos. “Deem and I were chatting about something else,” says Yu, who has sequenced the genomes of humans, rice, silkworms, and date palms. “What was happening in the room was not my business, and that’s my personality: If it’s not my business, I pay very little attention.”

Some people who know He and have spoken to Science contend it is time for a more open discussion of how the biophysicist formed his circle of confidants and how the larger circle of trust—the one between the scientific community and the public—broke down. Bioethicist William Hurlbut at Stanford University [emphasis mine] in Palo Alto, California, who knew He wanted to conduct the embryo-editing experiment and tried to dissuade him, says that He was “thrown under the bus” by many people who once supported him. “Everyone ran for the exits, in both the U.S. and China. I think everybody would do better if they would just openly admit what they knew and what they did, and then collectively say, ‘Well, people weren’t clear what to do. We should all admit this is an unfamiliar terrain.’”

Steve Lombardi, a former CEO of Helicos, reacted far more charitably. Lombardi, who runs a consulting business in Bridgewater, Connecticut, says Quake introduced him to He to help find investors for Direct Genomics. “He’s your classic, incredibly bright, naïve entrepreneur—I run into them all the time,” Lombardi says. “He had the right instincts for what to do in China and just didn’t know how to do it. So I put him in front of as many people as I could.” Lombardi says He told him about his embryo-editing ambitions in August 2017, asking whether Lombardi could find investors for a new company that focused on “genetic medical tourism” and was based in China or, because of a potentially friendlier regulatory climate, Thailand. “I kept saying to him, ‘You know, you’ve got to deal with the ethics of this and be really sure that you know what you’re doing.’”

In April 2018, He asked Ferrell to handle his media full time. Ferrell was a good fit—he had an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, had spent a year in Beijing studying Chinese, and had helped another company using a pre-CRISPR genome editor. Now that a woman in the trial was pregnant, Ferrell says, He’s “understanding of the gravity of what he had done increased.” Ferrell had misgivings about the experiment, but he quit HDMZ and that August moved to Shenzhen. With the pregnancy already underway, Ferrell reasoned, “It was going to be the biggest science story of that week or longer, no matter what I did.”

MIT Technology Review had broken a story early that morning China time, saying human embryos were being edited and implanted, after reporter Antonio Regalado discovered descriptions of the project that He had posted online, without Ferrell’s knowledge, in an official Chinese clinical trial registry. Now, He gave AP the green light to post a detailed account, which revealed that twin girls—whom He, to protect their identifies, named Lulu and Nana—had been born. Ferrell and He also posted five unfinished YouTube videos explaining and justifying the unprecedented experiment.

“He was fearful that he’d be unable to communicate to the press and the onslaught in a way that would be in any way manageable for him,” Ferrell says. One video tried to forestall eugenics accusations, with He rejecting goals such as enhancing intelligence, changing skin color, and increasing sports performance as “not love.” Still, the group knew it had lost control of the news. [emphasis mine]

… On 7 March 2017, 5 weeks after the California gathering, He submitted a medical ethics approval application to the Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital that outlined the planned CCR5 edit of human embryos. The babies, it claimed, would be resistant to HIV as well as to smallpox and cholera. (The natural CCR5 mutation may have been selected for because it helps carriers survive smallpox and plague, some studies suggest—but they don’t mention cholera.) “This is going to be a great science and medicine achievement ever since the IVF technology which was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010, and will also bring hope to numerous genetic disease patients,” the application says. Seven people on the ethics committee, chaired by Lin Zhitong—a one-time Direct Genomics director and a HarMoniCare administrator—signed the application, indicating they approved it.

[…] John Zhang, […] [emphasis mine] earned his medical degree in China and a Ph.D. in reproductive biology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Zhang had made international headlines himself in September 2016, when New Scientist revealed that he had created the world’s first “three-parent baby” by using mitochondrial DNA from a donor egg to revitalize the egg of a woman with infertility and then inseminating the resulting egg. “This technology holds great hope for ladies with advanced maternal age to have their own children with their own eggs,” Zhang explains in the center’s promotional video, which alternates between Chinese and English. It does not mention that Zhang did the IVF experiment in Mexico because it is not now allowed in the United States. [emphasis mine]

When Science contacted Zhang, the physician initially said he barely knew He: [emphases mine] “I know him just like many people know him, in an academic meeting.”

After his talk [November 2018 at Hong Kong meeting], He immediately drove back to Shenzhen, and his circle of trust began to disintegrate. He has not spoken publicly since. “I don’t think he can recover himself through PR,” says Ferrell, who no longer works for He but recently started to do part-time work for He’s wife. “He has to do other service to the world.”

Calls for a moratorium on human germline editing have increased, although at the end of the Hong Kong summit, the organizing committee declined in its consensus to call for a ban. China has stiffened its regulations on work with human embryos, and Chinese bioethicists in a Nature editorial about the incident urged the country to confront “the eugenic thinking that has persisted among a small proportion of Chinese scholars.”

Church, who has many CRISPR collaborations in China, finds it inconceivable that He’s work surprised the Chinese government. China has “the best surveillance system in the world,” he says. “I conclude that they were totally aware of what he was doing at every step of the way, especially because he wasn’t particularly secretive about it.”

Benjamin Hurlbut, William’s son and a historian of biomedicine at Arizona State University in Tempe, says leaders in the scientific community should take a hard look at their actions, too. [emphases mine] He thinks the 2017 NASEM report helped give rise to He by following a well-established approach to guiding science: appointing an elite group to decide how scientists should be regulated. Benjamin Hurlbut, whose book Experiments in Democracy explores the governance of embryo research and bioethics, questions why small, scientist-led groups—à la the totemic Asilomar conference held in 1975 to discuss the future of recombinant DNA research—are seen as the best way to shape thinking about new technologies. Hurlbut has called for a “global observatory for gene editing” to convene meetings with diverse perspectives.

The prevailing notion that the scientific community simply “failed to see the rogue among the responsible,” Hurlbut says, is a convenient narrative for those scientific leaders and inhibits their ability to learn from such failures. [emphases mine] “It puts them on the right side of history,” he says. They failed to paint a bright enough red line, Hurlbut contends. “They are not on the right side of history because they contributed to this.”

If you have the time, I strongly recommend reading Cohen’s piece in its entirety. You’ll find links to the reports and more articles with in-depth reporting on this topic.

A little kindness and no regrets

William Hurlbut was interviewed in an As it happens (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’ CBC) radio programme segment on December 30, 2020. This is an excerpt from the story transcript written by Sheena Goodyear (Note: A link has been removed),

Dr. William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of neural-biology at Stanford University, says he tried to warn He to slow down before it was too late. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

What was your reaction to the news that Dr. He had been sentenced to three years in prison?

My first reaction was one of sadness because I know Dr. He — who we call J.K., that’s his nickname.

I spent quite a few hours talking with him, and I’m just sad that this worked out this way. It didn’t work out well for him or for his country or for the world, in some sense.

Except the one good thing is it’s alerted us, it’s awakened the world, to the seriousness of the issues that are coming down toward us with biotechnology, especially in genetics.

How does he feel about [how] not just the Chinese government, but the world generally, responded to his experiment?

He was surprised, personally. But I had actually warned him that he was proceeding too fast, and I didn’t know he had implanted embryos.

We had several conversations before this was disclosed, and I warned him to go more slowly and to keep in conversation with the rest of the international scientific community, and more broadly the international perspectives on social and ethical matters.

He was doing that to some extent, but not deeply enough and not transparently enough.

It sounds like you were very thoughtful in the conversations you had with him and the advice you gave him. And I guess you operated with what you had. But do you have any regrets yourself?

I don’t have any regrets about the way I conducted myself. I regret that this happened this way for J.K., who is a very bright person, and a very nice person, a humble person.

He grew up in a poor urban farming village. He told me that at one point he wanted to ask out a certain girl that he thought was really pretty … but he was embarrassed to do so because her family owned the restaurant. And so you see how humble his origins were.

By the way, he did end up asking her out and he ended up marrying her, which is a happy story, except now they’re separated for years of crucial time, and they have little children. 

I know this is a bigger story than just J.K. and his family. But there’s a personal story to it too.

What happens He Jiankui? … Is his research career over?

It’s hard to imagine that a nation like China would not give him some some useful role in their society. A very intelligent and very well-educated young man. 

But on the other hand, he will be forever a sign of a very crucial and difficult moment for the human species. He’s not going outlive that.

It’s going to be interesting. I hope I get a chance to have good conversations with him again and hear his internal ruminations and perspectives on it all.

This (“I don’t have any regrets about the way I conducted myself”) is where Hurlbut lost me. I think he could have suggested that he’d reviewed and rethought everything and feels that he and others could have done better and maybe they need to rethink how scientists are trained and how we talk about science, genetics, and emerging technology. Interestingly, it’s his son who comes up with something closer to what I’m suggesting (this excerpt was quoted earlier in this posting from a December 30, 2019 article, by Carolyn Y. Johnson for the Washington Post),

“The fact that the individual at the center of the story has been punished for his role in it should not distract us from examining what supporting roles were played by others, particularly in the international scientific community and also the environment that shaped and encouraged him to push the limits,” said Benjamin Hurlbut [emphasis mine], associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

The man who CRISPRs himself approves

Josiah Zayner publicly injected himself with CRISPR in a demonstration (see my January 25, 2018 posting for details about Zayner, his demonstration, and his plans). As you might expect, his take on the He affair is quite individual. From a January 2, 2020 article for STAT, Zayner presents the case for Dr. He’s work (Note: Links have been removed),

When I saw the news that He Jiankui and colleagues had been sentenced to three years in prison for the first human embryo gene editing and implantation experiments, all I could think was, “How will we look back at what they had done in 100 years?”

When the scientist described his research and revealed the births of gene edited twin girls at the [Second] International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in late November 2018, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning in Oakland, Calif., watching it. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep for a few days and couldn’t stop thinking about his achievement.

This was the first time a viable human embryo was edited and allowed to live past 14 days, much less the first time such an embryo was implanted and the baby brought to term.

The majority of scientists were outraged at the ethics of what had taken place, despite having very little information on what had actually occurred.

To me, no matter how abhorrent one views [sic] the research, it represents a substantial step forward in human embryo editing. Now there is a clear path forward that anyone can follow when before it had been only a dream.

As long as the children He Jiankui engineered haven’t been harmed by the experiment, he is just a scientist who forged some documents to convince medical doctors to implant gene-edited embryos. The 4-minute mile of human genetic engineering has been broken. It will happen again.

The academic establishment and federal funding regulations have made it easy to control the number of heretical scientists. We rarely if ever hear of individuals pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of science.

The rise of the biohacker is changing that.

A biohacker is a scientist who exists outside academia or an institution. By this definition, He Jiankui is a biohacker. I’m also part of this community, and helped build an organization to support it.

Such individuals have much more freedom than “traditional” scientists because scientific regulation in the U.S. is very much institutionally enforced by the universities, research organizations, or grant-giving agencies. But if you are your own institution and don’t require federal grants, who can police you? If you don’t tell anyone what you are doing, there is no way to stop you — especially since there is no government agency actively trying to stop people from editing embryos.

… When a human embryo being edited and implanted is no longer interesting enough for a news story, will we still view He Jiankui as a villain?

I don’t think we will. But even if we do, He Jiankui will be remembered and talked about more than any scientist of our day. Although that may seriously aggravate many scientists and bioethicists, I think he deserves that honor.

Josiah Zayner is CEO of The ODIN, a company that teaches people how to do genetic engineering in their homes.

You can find The ODIN here.

Final comments

There can’t be any question that this was inevitable. One needs only to take a brief stroll through the history of science to know that scientists are going to push boundaries or, as in this case, press past an ill-defined grey zone.

The only scientists who are being publicly punished for hubris are Dr. He Jiankui and his two colleagues in China. Dr. Michael Deem is still working for Rice University as far as I can determine. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for the He Jiankui Affair describes the investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Michael W. Deem, an American bioengineering professor at Rice University and He’s doctoral advisor, was involved in the research, and was present when people involved in He’s study gave consent.[24] He was the only non-Chinese out of 10 authors listed in the manuscript submitted to Nature.[30] Deem came under investigation by Rice University after news of the work was made public.[58] As of 31 December 2019, the university had not released a decision.[59] [emphasis mine]

Meanwhile the scientists at Stanford are cleared. While there are comments about the Chinese government not being transparent, it seems to me that US universities are just as opaque.

What seems missing from all this discussion and opprobrium is that the CRISPR technology itself is problematic. My September 20, 2019 post features research into off-target results from CRISPR gene-editing and, prior, there was this July 17, 2018 posting (The CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats]-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle).

I’d like to see more discussion and, in line with Benjamin Hurlbut’s thinking, I’d like to see more than a small group of experts talking to each other as part of the process especially here in Canada and in light of efforts to remove our ban on germline-editing (see my April 26, 2019 posting for more about those efforts).

Plants as a source of usable electricity

A friend sent me a link to this interview with Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University talking about some new research into plants and electricity. From a June 8, 2020 article by Omer Kabir for Calcalist (CTech) on the Algemeiner website,

For years, scientists have been trying to understand the evolutionary capabilities of plants to produce energy and have had only partial success. But a recent Tel Aviv University [TAU] study seems to make the impossible possible, proving that any plant can be transformed into an electrical source, producing a variety of materials that can revolutionize the global economy — from using hydrogen as fuel to clean ammonia to replace the pollutants in the agriculture industry.

“People are unaware that their plant pots have an electric current for everything,” Iftach Yacoby, head of the Laboratory of Renewable Energy Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Life Sciences said in a recent interview with Calcalist.

“Our study opens the door to a new field of agriculture, equivalent to wheat or corn production for food security — generating energy,” he said. However, Yacoby makes it clear that it will take at least a decade before the research findings can be transferred to the commercial level.

At the heart of the research is the understanding that plants have particularly efficient capacities when it comes to electricity generation. “Anything green that is not dollars, but rather leaves, grass, and seaweed for example, contains solar panels that are completely identical to the panels the entire country is now building,” Yacoby explained. “They know how to take in solar radiation and make electrons flow out of it. That’s the essence of photosynthesis. Most people think of oxygen and food production, but the most basic phase of photosynthesis is the same as silicon panels in the Negev and on rooftops — taking in sunlight and generating electric current.”

… “At home, an electric current can be wired to many devices. Just plug the device into a power outlet. But when you want to do it in plants, it’s about the order of nanometers. We have no idea where to plug the plugs. That’s what we did in this study. In plant cells, we found they can be used as a socket for anything, at just a nanometer size. We have an enzyme, which is equivalent to a biological machine that can produce hydrogen. We took this enzyme, put it together so that it sits in the socket in the plant cell, which was previously only hypothetical. When he started to produce hydrogen, we proved that we had a socket for everything, though nanotermically-sized. Now we can take any plant or kelp and engineer it so that their electrical outlet can be used for production purposes,” Yacoby explained.

“If you attach an enzyme that produces hydrogen you get hydrogen, it’s the cleanest fuel that can be,” he said. “There are already electric cars and bicycles with a range of 150 km that travel on hydrogen. There are many types of enzymes in nature that produce valuable substances, such as ammonia needed for the fertilizer industry and today is still produced by a very toxic and harmful method that consumes a lot of energy. We can provide a plant-based alternative for the production of materials that are made in chemical manufacturing facilities. It’s an electric platform inside a living plant cell.”

You might find it helpful to read Kabir’s article in its entirety before moving on to the news release about the work. The work was conducted with researchers from Arizona State University (ASU;US) and a researcher from Yogi Vemana University (India), as well as, Yacoby. There’s a May 7, 2020 ASU news release (also on EurekAlert but published on May 6, 2020) detailing the work,

Hydrogen is an essential commodity with over 60 million tons produced globally every year. However over 95 percent of it is made by steam reformation of fossil fuels, a process that is energy intensive and produces carbon dioxide. If we could replace even a part of that with algal biohydrogen that is made via light and water, it would have a substantial impact.

This is essentially what has just been achieved in the lab of Kevin Redding, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis. Their research, entitled Rewiring photosynthesis: a Photosystem I -hydrogenase chimera that makes hydrogen in vivo was published very recently in the high impact journal Energy and Environmental Science.

“What we have done is to show that it is possible to intercept the high energy electrons from photosynthesis and use them to drive alternate chemistry, in a living cell” explained Redding. “We have used hydrogen production here as an example.”

“Kevin Redding and his group have made a true breakthrough in re-engineering the Photosystem I complex,” explained Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences, which is part of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They didn’t just find a way to redirect a complex protein structure that nature designed for one purpose to perform a different, but equally critical process, but they found the best way to do it at the molecular level.”

It is common knowledge that plants and algae, as well as cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and “fuels,” the latter being oxidizable substances like carbohydrates and hydrogen. There are two pigment-protein complexes that orchestrate the primary reactions of light in oxygenic photosynthesis: Photosystem I (PSI) and Photosystem II (PSII).

Algae (in this work the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, or ‘Chlamy’ for short) possess an enzyme called hydrogenase that uses electrons it gets from the protein ferredoxin, which is normally used to ferry electrons from PSI to various destinations. A problem is that the algal hydrogenase is rapidly and irreversibly inactivated by oxygen that is constantly produced by PSII.

In this study, doctoral student and first author Andrey Kanygin has created a genetic chimera of PSI and the hydrogenase such that they co-assemble and are active in vivo. This new assembly redirects electrons away from carbon dioxide fixation to the production of biohydrogen.

“We thought that some radically different approaches needed to be taken — thus, our crazy idea of hooking up the hydrogenase enzyme directly to Photosystem I in order to divert a large fraction of the electrons from water splitting (by Photosystem II) to make molecular hydrogen,” explained Redding.

Cells expressing the new photosystem (PSI-hydrogenase) make hydrogen at high rates in a light dependent fashion, for several days.

This important result will also be featured in an upcoming article in Chemistry World – a monthly chemistry news magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The magazine addresses current developments in the world of chemistry including research, international business news and government policy as it affects the chemical science community.

The NSF grant funding this research is part of the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). In this arrangement, a U.S. scientist and Israeli scientist join forces to form a joint project. The U.S. partner submits a grant on the joint project to the NSF, and the Israeli partner submits the same grant to the ISF (Israel Science Foundation). Both agencies must agree to fund the project in order to obtain the BSF funding. Professor Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University, Redding’s partner on the BSF project, is a young scientist who first started at TAU about eight years ago and has focused on different ways to increase algal biohydrogen production.

In summary, re-engineering the fundamental processes of photosynthetic microorganisms offers a cheap and renewable platform for creating bio-factories capable of driving difficult electron reactions, powered only by the sun and using water as the electron source.

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

Rewiring photosynthesis: a photosystem I-hydrogenase chimera that makes H2in vivo by Andrey Kanygin, Yuval Milrad, Chandrasekhar Thummala, Kiera Reifschneider, Patricia Baker, Pini Marco, Iftach Yacoby and Kevin E. Redding. Energy Environ. Sci., 2020, Advance DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/C9EE03859K First published: 17 Apr 2020

In order to gain access to the paper, you must have or sign up for a free account.

This image was used to illustrate the research,

A model of Photosystem 1 core subunits Courtesy: ASU

Awe, science, and God

Having been brought up in a somewhat dogmatic religion, I was a bit resistant when I saw ‘religion’ mentioned in the news release but it seems I am being dogmatic. Here’s a definition from the Religion Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.[1][2]

This research into science and God suggests that the two ‘belief’ systems are not antithetical. From a July 18, 2019 Arizona State University (ASU) news release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 17, 2019) by Kimberlee D’Ardenne,

Most Americans believe science and religion are incompatible, but a recent study suggests that scientific engagement can actually promote belief in God.

Researchers from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology found that scientific information can create a feeling of awe, which leads to belief in more abstract views of God. The work will be published in the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and is now available online.

“There are many ways of thinking about God. Some see God in DNA, some think of God as the universe, and others think of God in Biblical, personified terms,” said Kathryn Johnson, associate research professor at ASU and lead author on the study. “We wanted to know if scientific engagement influenced beliefs about the existence or nature of God.”

Though science is often thought of in terms of data and experiments, ASU psychology graduate student Jordan Moon, who was a coauthor on the paper, said science might be more to some people. To test how people connect with science and the impact it had on their beliefs about God, the researchers looked at two types of scientific engagement: logical thinking or experiencing the feeling of awe.

The team first surveyed participants about how interested they were in science, how committed they were to logical thinking and how often they felt awe. Reporting a commitment to logic was associated with unbelief. The participants who reported both a strong commitment to logic and having experienced awe, or a feeling of overwhelming wonder that often leads to open-mindedness, were more likely to report believing in God. The most common description of God given by those participants was not what is commonly found in houses of worship: They reported believing in an abstract God described as mystical or limitless.

“When people are awed by the complexity of life or the vastness of the universe, they were more inclined to think in more spiritual ways,” Johnson said. “The feeling of awe might make people more open to other ways of conceptualizing God.”

In another experiment, the research team had the participants engage with science by watching videos. While a lecture about quantum physics led to unbelief or agnosticism, watching a music video about how atoms are both particles and waves led people to report feeling awe. Those who felt awe also were more likely to believe in an abstract God.

“A lot of people think science and religion do not go together, but they are thinking about science in too simplistic a way and religion in too simplistic a way,” said Adam Cohen, professor of psychology and senior author on the paper. “Science is big enough to accommodate religion, and religion is big enough to accommodate science.”

Cohen added that the work could lead to broader views of both science and religion.

Morris Okun, Matthew Scott and Holly O’Rourke from ASU and Joshua Hook from the University of North Texas also contributed to the work. The study was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

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

Science, God, and the cosmos: Science both erodes (via logic) and promotes (via awe) belief in God by Kathryn A.Johnson, Jordan W.Moon, Morris A.Okun, Matthew J.Scott, Holly P.O’Rourke, Joshua N.Hook, Adam B. Cohen. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 84, September 2019, 103826 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103826

This paper is behind a paywall.

I noted the funding from the John Templeton Foundation and recalled they have a prize that relates to this topic.

2019 Templeton Prize winner

A March 20, 2019 article by Lee Billings for Scientific American offers a profile of the 2019 Templeton Prize winner,

Marcelo Gleiser, a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and prolific science popularizer, has won this year’s Templeton Prize. Valued at just under $1.5 million, the award from the John Templeton Foundation annually recognizes an individual “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” [emphasis mine] Its past recipients include scientific luminaries such as Sir Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson, as well as religious or political leaders such as Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

Across his 35-year scientific career, Gleiser’s research has covered a wide breadth of topics, ranging from the properties of the early universe to the behavior of fundamental particles and the origins of life. But in awarding him its most prestigious honor, the Templeton Foundation chiefly cited his status as a leading public intellectual revealing “the historical, philosophical and cultural links between science, the humanities and spirituality.” He is also the first Latin American to receive the prize.

Scientific American spoke with Gleiser about the award, how he plans to advance his message of consilience, the need for humility in science, why humans are special, and the fundamental source of his curiosity as a physicist.

You’ve written and spoken eloquently about nature of reality and consciousness, the genesis of life, the possibility of life beyond Earth, the origin and fate of the universe, and more. How do all those disparate topics synergize into one, cohesive message for you

To me, science is one way of connecting with the mystery of existence. And if you think of it that way, the mystery of existence is something that we have wondered about ever since people began asking questions about who we are and where we come from. So while those questions are now part of scientific research, they are much, much older than science. I’m not talking about the science of materials, or high-temperature superconductivity, which is awesome and super important, but that’s not the kind of science I’m doing. I’m talking about science as part of a much grander and older sort of questioning about who we are in the big picture of the universe. To me, as a theoretical physicist and also someone who spends time out in the mountains, this sort of questioning offers a deeply spiritual connection with the world, through my mind and through my body. Einstein would have said the same thing, I think, with his cosmic religious feeling.

If you’re interested, this is a wide ranging profile touching on one of the big questions in physics, Is there a theory of everything?

For anyone curious about the Templeton Foundation, you can find out more here.

Call for abstracts: Seventh annual conference on governance of emerging technologies & science (GETS)

The conference itself will be held from May 22 – 24, 2019 at Arizona State University (ASU) and the deadline for abstracts is January 31, 2019. Here’s the news straight from the January 8, 2019 email announcement,

The Seventh Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies & Science (GETS)

May 22-24, 2019 / ASU / Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
111 E. Taylor St., Phoenix, AZ
 
The conference will consist of plenary and session presentations and discussions on regulatory, governance, legal, policy, social and ethical aspects of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, synthetic biology, gene editing, biotechnology, genomics, personalized medicine, digital health, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, internet of things (IoT), blockchain and much, much more!
 
Submit Your Abstract Here: 2019 Abstract
or
Conference Website
 
Call for abstracts:
 
The co-sponsors invite submission of abstracts for proposed presentations. Submitters of abstracts need not provide a written paper, although provision will be made for posting and possible post-conference publication of papers for those who are interested. 
Abstracts are invited for any aspect or topic relating to the governance of emerging technologies, including any of the technologies listed above.
 
·         Abstracts should not exceed 500 words and must contain your name and email address.
·         Abstracts must be submitted by January 31, 2019 to be considered. 
·         The sponsors will pay for the conference registration (including all conference meals and events) for one presenter for each accepted abstract. In addition, we will have limited funds available for travel subsidies (application included in submission form).
For more informationcontact our Executive Director Josh Abbott at Josh.Abbott@asu.edu.

Good luck on your submission!

Better hair dyes with graphene and a cautionary note

Beauty products aren’t usually the first applications that come to mind when discussing graphene or any other research and development (R&D) as I learned when teaching a course a few years ago. But research and development  in that field are imperative as every company is scrambling for a short-lived competitive advantage for a truly new products or a perceived competitive advantage in a field where a lot of products are pretty much the same.

This March 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes graphene as a potential hair dye,

Graphene, a naturally black material, could provide a new strategy for dyeing hair in difficult-to-create dark shades. And because it’s a conductive material, hair dyed with graphene might also be less prone to staticky flyaways. Now, researchers have put it to the test. In an article published March 15 [2018] in the journal Chem, they used sheets of graphene to make a dye that adheres to the surface of hair, forming a coating that is resistant to at least 30 washes without the need for chemicals that open up and damage the hair cuticle.

Courtesy: Northwestern University

A March 15, 2018 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, fills in more the of the story,

Most permanent hair dyes used today are harmful to hair. “Your hair is covered in these cuticle scales like the scales of a fish, and people have to use ammonia or organic amines to lift the scales and allow dye molecules to get inside a lot quicker,” says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern University. But lifting the cuticle makes the strands of the hair more brittle, and the damage is only exacerbated by the hydrogen peroxide that is used to trigger the reaction that synthesizes the dye once the pigment molecules are inside the hair.

These problems could theoretically be solved by a dye that coats rather than penetrates the hair. “However, the obvious problem of coating-based dyes is that they tend to wash out very easily,” says Huang. But when he and his team coated samples of human hair with a solution of graphene sheets, they were able to turn platinum blond hair black and keep it that way for at least 30 washes–the number necessary for a hair dye to be considered “permanent.”

This effectiveness has to do with the structure of graphene: it’s made of up thin, flexible sheets that can adapt to uneven surfaces. “Imagine a piece of paper. A business card is very rigid and doesn’t flex by itself. But if you take a much bigger sheet of newspaper–if you still can find one nowadays–it can bend easily. This makes graphene sheets a good coating material,” he says. And once the coating is formed, the graphene sheets are particularly good at keeping out water during washes, which keeps the water from eroding both the graphene and the polymer binder that the team also added to the dye solution to help with adhesion.

The graphene dye has additional advantages. Each coated hair is like a little wire in that it is able to conduct heat and electricity. This means that it’s easy for graphene-dyed hair to dissipate static electricity, eliminating the problem of flyaways on dry winter days. The graphene flakes are large enough that they won’t absorb through the skin like other dye molecules. And although graphene is typically black, its precursor, graphene oxide, is light brown. But the color of graphene oxide can be gradually darkened with heat or chemical reactions, meaning that this dye could be used for a variety of shades or even for an ombre effect.

What Huang thinks is particularly striking about this application of graphene is that it takes advantage of graphene’s most obvious property. “In many potential graphene applications, the black color of graphene is somewhat undesirable and something of a sore point,” he says. Here, though, it’s applied to a field where creating dark colors has historically been a problem.

The graphene used for hair dye also doesn’t need to be of the same high quality as it does for other applications. “For hair dye, the most important property is graphene being black. You can have graphene that is too lousy for higher-end electronic applications, but it’s perfectly okay for this. So I think this application can leverage the current graphene product as is, and that’s why I think that this could happen a lot sooner than many of the other proposed applications,” he says.

Making it happen is his next goal. He hopes to get funding to continue the research and make these dyes a reality for the people whose lives they would improve. “This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn’t sound very big and noble when we started working on it,” he says. “But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it’s one that graphene could really help to solve.”

Northwestern University’s Amanda Morris also wrote a March 15, 2018 news release (it’s repetitive but there are some interesting new details; Note: Links have been removed),

It’s an issue that has plagued the beauty industry for more than a century: Dying hair too often can irreparably damage your silky strands.

Now a Northwestern University team has used materials science to solve this age-old problem. The team has leveraged super material graphene to develop a new hair dye that is less harmful [emphasis mine], non-damaging and lasts through many washes without fading. Graphene’s conductive nature also opens up new opportunities for hair, such as turning it into in situ electrodes or integrating it with wearable electronic devices.

Dying hair might seem simple and ordinary, but it’s actually a sophisticated chemical process. Called the cuticle, the outermost layer of a hair is made of cells that overlap in a scale-like pattern. Commercial dyes work by using harsh chemicals, such as ammonia and bleach, to first pry open the cuticle scales to allow colorant molecules inside and then trigger a reaction inside the hair to produce more color. Not only does this process cause hair to become more fragile, some of the small molecules are also quite toxic.

Huang and his team bypassed harmful chemicals altogether by leveraging the natural geometry of graphene sheets. While current hair dyes use a cocktail of small molecules that work by chemically altering the hair, graphene sheets are soft and flexible, so they wrap around each hair for an even coat. Huang’s ink formula also incorporates edible, non-toxic polymer binders to ensure that the graphene sticks — and lasts through at least 30 washes, which is the commercial requirement for permanent hair dye. An added bonus: graphene is anti-static, so it keeps winter-weather flyaways to a minimum.

“It’s similar to the difference between a wet paper towel and a tennis ball,” Huang explained, comparing the geometry of graphene to that of other black pigment particles, such as carbon black or iron oxide, which can only be used in temporary hair dyes. “The paper towel is going to wrap and stick much better. The ball-like particles are much more easily removed with shampoo.”

This geometry also contributes to why graphene is a safer alternative. Whereas small molecules can easily be inhaled or pass through the skin barrier, graphene is too big to enter the body. “Compared to those small molecules used in current hair dyes, graphene flakes are humongous,” said Huang, who is a member of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Ever since graphene — the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms — burst onto the science scene in 2004, the possibilities for the promising material have seemed nearly endless. With its ultra-strong and lightweight structure, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices. But development of those applications often require graphene materials to be as structurally perfect as possible in order to achieve extraordinary electrical, mechanical or thermal properties.

The most important graphene property for Huang’s hair dye, however, is simply its color: black. So Huang’s team used graphene oxide, an imperfect version of graphene that is a cheaper, more available oxidized derivative.

“Our hair dye solves a real-world problem without relying on very high-quality graphene, which is not easy to make,” Huang said. “Obviously more work needs to be done, but I feel optimistic about this application.”

Still, future versions of the dye could someday potentially leverage graphene’s notable properties, including its highly conductive nature.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

So far, Huang has developed graphene-based hair dyes in multiple shades of brown and black. Next, he plans to experiment with more colors.

Interestingly, the tiny note of caution”less harmful” doesn’t appear in the Cell Press news release. Never fear, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) has written a March 20, 2018 essay on The Conversation suggesting a little further investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

Tiny materials, potentially bigger problems

Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren’t necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn’t indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it’s completely safe.

A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, over 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.

This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research “unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material.”

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It’s also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.

Undermining other efforts?

I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies – a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.

Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe “that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put.” Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else’s more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.

Overpromising results and overlooking risk

This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an “economy of promises” that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.

If you have time, I encourage you to read Andrew’s piece in its entirety.

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

Multifunctional Graphene Hair Dye by Chong Luo, Lingye Zhou, Kevin Chiou, and Jiaxing Huang. Chem DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2018.02.02 Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be open access.

*Two paragraphs (repetitions) were deleted from the excerpt of Dr. Andrew Maynard’s essay on August 14, 2018