Tag Archives: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)

Effective safety strategies for CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene drive experiments

It’s very peculiar being able to understand each word individually in clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) but not being able to puzzle out much meaning other than the widely known ‘it’s a gene editor’.

Regardless, CRISPR is a powerful gene editing tool and that can lead to trouble. Even before CRISPR, we’ve had some genetic accidents. Perhaps the best known is the ‘killer bee’ or Africanized bee (from its Wikepedia entry),

The Africanized bee, also known as the Africanised honey bee, and known colloquially as “killer bee”, is a hybrid of the western honey bee species (Apis mellifera), produced originally by cross-breeding [emphasis mine] of the East African lowland honey bee (A. m. scutellata) with various European honey bees such as the Italian honey bee A. m. ligustica and the Iberian honey bee A. m. iberiensis.

The Africanized honey bee was first introduced to Brazil in 1956 in an effort to increase honey production, but 26 swarms escaped quarantine in 1957 [emphasis mine]. Since then, the hybrid has spread throughout South America and arrived in North America in 1985. Hives were found in South Texas of the United States in 1990.

Africanized bees are typically much more defensive than other varieties of honey bee, and react to disturbances faster than European honey bees. They can chase a person a quarter of a mile (400 m); they have killed some 1,000 humans, with victims receiving ten times more stings than from European honey bees. They have also killed horses and other animals.

Getting back to how powerful CRISPR is, a group of scientists has developed a set of strategies for safeguarding gene drive experiments (from a January 22, 2019 eLife press release also on EurekAlert),

Researchers have demonstrated for the first time how two molecular strategies can safeguard CRISPR gene drive experiments in the lab, according to a study published today in eLife.

Their findings, first reported on bioRxiv, suggest that scientists can effectively use synthetic target sites and split drives to conduct gene drive research, without the worry of causing an accidental spread throughout a natural population.

Gene drives, such as those trialled in malaria mosquitoes, are genetic packages designed to spread among populations. They do this via a process called ‘drive conversion’, where the Cas9 enzyme and a molecule called guide RNA (gRNA) cut at a certain site in the genome. The drive is then copied in when the DNA break is repaired.

“CRISPR-based gene drives have sparked both enthusiasm and deep concerns due to their potential for genetically altering entire species,” explains first author Jackson Champer, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology at Cornell University, New York. “This raises the question about our ability to prevent the unintended spread of such drives from the laboratory into the natural world.

“Current strategies for avoiding accidental spread involve physically confining drive-containing organisms. However, it is uncertain whether this sufficiently reduces the likelihood of any accidental escape into the wild, given the possibility of human error.”

Two molecular safeguarding strategies have recently been proposed that go beyond simply confining research organisms. The first is synthetic target site drive, which homes into engineered genomic sites that are absent in wild organisms. The second is split drive, where the drive construct lacks a type of enzyme called the endonuclease and relies instead on one engineered into a distant site.

“The nature of these strategies means that they should prevent an efficient spread outside of their respective laboratory lines,” Champer adds. “We wanted to see if they both had a similar performance to standard homing drives, and if they would therefore be suitable substitutes in early gene-drive research.”

To do this, the team designed and tested three synthetic target site drives in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Each drive targeted an enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) gene introduced at one of three different sites in the genome. For split drives, they designed a drive construct that targeted the X-linked gene yellow and lacked Cas9.

Their analyses revealed that CRISPR gene drives with synthetic target sites such as EGFP show similar behaviour to standard drives, and can therefore be used for most testing in place of these drives. The split drives demonstrated similar performance, and also allow for natural sequences to be targeted in situations where the use of synthetic targets is difficult. These include population-suppression drives that require the targeting of naturally occurring genes

“Based on our findings, we suggest these safeguarding strategies should be adopted consistently in the development and testing of future gene drives,” says senior author Philipp Messer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology at Cornell University. “This will be important for large-scale cage experiments aimed at improving our understanding of the expected population dynamics of candidate drives. Ultimately, this understanding will be crucial for discussing the feasibility and risks of releasing successful drives into the wild, for example to reduce malaria and other vector-borne diseases.”

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

Molecular safeguarding of CRISPR gene drive experiments by Jackson Champer, Joan Chung, Yoo Lim Lee, Chen Liu, Emily Yang, Zhaoxin Wen, Andrew G Clark, Philipp W Messer. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.41439 Short Report Jan 22, 2019

This paper is open access. For anyone who doesn’t mind reading an earlier version of a paper you can find it at bioRxiv, at https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/09/08/411876.

elife, which i’ve mentioned here here before in a February 8, 2018 posting is a (from their About eLife webpage)

… non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.

Greater mortality for the CRISPR twins Lulu and Nana?

Every time I think this CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) story is winding down, something new happens. The latest (I think) is in a June 3, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

A genetic mutation that a Chinese scientist attempted to create in twin babies born last year, ostensibly to help them fend off HIV infection, is also associated with a 21% increase in mortality in later life, according to an analysis by University of California, Berkeley, scientists.

The researchers scanned more than 400,000 genomes and associated health records contained in a British database, UK Biobank, and found that people who had two mutated copies of the gene had a significantly higher death rate between ages 41 and 78 than those with one or no copies.

Sarah Zhang’s June 3, 2019 article for The Atlantic provides an overview of the situation before exploring the current controversy,

In the 1990s, virologists in New York learned of a genetic mutation that would become one of the most famous ever discovered. They found it in a man who could not be infected with HIV. He turned out to be missing just 32 letters in a gene called CCR5, and remarkably, it was enough to make him resistant to the virus killing so many others. About 1 percent of people of European descent carry two copies of this mutation, now known as CCR5-Δ32.

In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui made the mutation infamous when he attempted to use CRISPR to edit CCR5-Δ32 (pronounced “CCR5-delta-32”) into human embryos. He chose this mutation, he said, because the babies’ father was HIV-positive, and he wanted to make the resulting twin girls resistant to the virus. CCR5-Δ32 is also, after all, one of the most studied mutations.

He’s work immediately provoked outrage among scientists, who knew enough to know how much they did not know about the risks of altering CCR5. And now a new study suggests that CCR5-Δ32 is indeed harmful overall.

The girls’ CCR5 genes were altered, according to data He presented, but they do not exactly match the 32-letter deletion; it’s unclear whether either of them is actually resistant to HIV. Even if they were unable to get HIV, a body of research already suggested that CCR5-Δ32 made people more vulnerable to the flu and West Nile virus. A “good” mutation in the context of HIV can be “bad” in another context. No one knew, exactly, the net effect of a CCR5-Δ32 mutation.

For some reason, Zhang makes no mention of the possibly enhanced cognitive abilities that the twins may have as a consequence of the gene editing assuming that He Jiankui successfully edited the genes. (To my knowledge, the results and data have not been released for review by colleagues.)

Regardless, Zhang’s article provides a handy overview and update.

For anyone who’s interested in more detail about this latest research into mortality and CCR5, there’s a June 3, 2019 University of California at Berkeley news release (also on EurekAlert) by Robert Sanders, which also originated the ScienceDaily news item, details the latest research,

Previous studies have associated two mutated copies of the gene, CCR5, with a fourfold increase in the death rate after influenza infection, and the higher overall mortality rate may reflect this greater susceptibility to death from the flu. But the researchers say there could be any number of explanations, since the protein that CCR5 codes for, and which no longer works in those having the mutation in both copies of the gene, is involved in many body functions.

“Beyond the many ethical issues involved with the CRISPR babies, the fact is that, right now, with current knowledge, it is still very dangerous to try to introduce mutations without knowing the full effect of what those mutations do,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. “In this case, it is probably not a mutation that most people would want to have. You are actually, on average, worse off having it.”

“Because one gene could affect multiple traits, and because, depending on the environment, the effects of a mutation could be quite different, I think there can be many uncertainties and unknown effects in any germline editing,” said postdoctoral fellow Xinzhu “April” Wei.
Wei is first author and Nielsen is senior author of a paper describing the research that will appear online on Monday, June 3, in the journal Nature Medicine.

Mutation prevents HIV infection

The gene CCR5 codes for a protein that, among other things, sits on the surface of immune cells and helps some strains of HIV, including the most common ones, to enter and infect them. Jiankui He, the Chinese scientist who last November shocked the world by announcing he had experimented with CCR5 on at least two babies, said he wanted to introduce a mutation in the gene that would prevent this. Naturally-occurring mutations that disable the protein are rare in Asians, but a mutation found in about 11% of Northern Europeans protects them against HIV infection.

The genetic mutation, ∆32 (Delta 32), refers to a missing 32-base-pair segment in the CCR5 gene. This mutation interferes with the localization on the cell surface of the protein for which CCR5 codes, thwarting HIV binding and infection. He was unable to duplicate the natural mutation, but appears to have generated a similar deletion that would also inactivate the protein. One of the twin babies reportedly had one copy of CCR5 modified by CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, while the other baby had both copies edited.

But inactivating a protein found in all humans and most animals is likely to have negative effects, Nielsen said, especially when done to both copies of the gene — a so-called homozygous mutation

“Here is a functional protein that we know has an effect in the organism, and it is well-conserved among many different species, so it is likely that a mutation that destroys the protein is, on average, not good for you,” he said. “Otherwise, evolutionary mechanisms would have destroyed that protein a long time ago.”

After He’s experiment became public, Nielsen and Wei, who study current genetic variation to understand the origin of human, animal and plant traits, decided to investigate the effect of the CCR5-∆32 mutation using data from UK Biobank. The database houses genomic information on a half million U.K. citizens that is linked to their medical records. The genomic information is much like that acquired by Ancestry.com and 23andMe: details on nearly a million individual variations in the genetic sequence, so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

Two independent measures indicated a higher mortality rate for those with two mutated genes. Fewer people than expected with two mutations enrolled in the database, indicating that they had died at a higher rate than the general population. And fewer than expected survived from ages 40 to 78.

“Both the proportions before enrollment and the survivorship after enrollment tell the same story, which is that you have lower survivability or higher mortality if you have two copies of the mutation,” Nielsen said. “There is simply a deficiency of individuals with two copies.”

Because the ∆32 mutation is relatively common in Northern Europeans, it must have been favored by natural selection at some point, Nielsen said, though probably not to protect against HIV, since the virus has circulated among humans only since the 1980s.

Wei said that some evidence links the mutation to increased survival after stroke and protection against smallpox and flaviviruses, a group that includes the dengue, Zika and West Nile viruses.

Despite these possible benefits, the potential unintended effects of creating genetic mutations, in both adult somatic cells and in embryonic, germline cells, argue for caution, the researchers said.

“I think there are a lot of things that are unknown at the current stage about genes’ functions,” Wei said. “The CRISPR technology is far too dangerous to use right now for germline editing.”

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

CCR5-∆32 is deleterious in the homozygous state in humans by Xinzhu Wei & Rasmus Nielsen. Nature Medicine (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-019-0459-6 Published 03 June 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

For those who have an insatiable appetite for detail, there’s my November 28, 2018 posting which covers what happened when the CRISPR twins, Lulu and Nana, was first announced, along with a few updates to January 23, 2019. The May 17, 2019 posting covers the news of possible cognitive advantages for the CCR5-Δ32 gene-edited twins and explores some of the social implications.

Lifesaving moths and nanomagnets

Rice University bioengineers use a magnetic field to activate nanoparticle-attached baculoviruses in a tissue. The viruses, which normally infect alfalfa looper moths, are modified to deliver gene-editing DNA code only to cells that are targeted with magnetic field-induced local transduction. Courtesy of the Laboratory of Biomolecular Engineering and Nanomedicine

Kudos to whomever put that diagram together! That’s a lot of well conveyed information.

Now for the details about how this technology might save lives. From a November 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

A new technology that relies on a moth-infecting virus and nanomagnets could be used to edit defective genes that give rise to diseases like sickle cell, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

Rice University bioengineer Gang Bao has combined magnetic nanoparticles with a viral container drawn from a particular species of moth to deliver CRISPR/Cas9 payloads that modify genes in a specific tissue or organ with spatial control.

A November 12, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert published on November 13, 2018), which originated the news item, provides detail,

Because magnetic fields are simple to manipulate and, unlike light, pass easily through tissue, Bao and his colleagues want to use them to control the expression of viral payloads in target tissues by activating the virus that is otherwise inactivated in blood.

The research appears in Nature Biomedical Engineering. In nature, CRISPR/Cas9 bolsters microbes’ immune systems by recording the DNA of invaders. That gives microbes the ability to recognize and attack returning invaders, but scientists have been racing to adapt CRISPR/Cas9 to repair mutations that cause genetic diseases and to manipulate DNA in laboratory experiments.

CRISPR/Cas9 has the potential to halt hereditary disease – if scientists can get the genome-editing machinery to the right cells inside the body. But roadblocks remain, especially in delivering the gene-editing payloads with high efficiency.

Bao said it will be necessary to edit cells in the body to treat many diseases. “But efficiently delivering genome-editing machinery into target tissue in the body with spatial control remains a major challenge,” Bao said. “Even if you inject the viral vector locally, it can leak to other tissues and organs, and that could be dangerous.”

The delivery vehicle developed by Bao’s group is based on a virus that infects Autographa californica, aka the alfalfa looper, a moth native to North America. The cylindrical baculovirus vector (BV), the payload-carrying part of the virus, is considered large at up to 60 nanometers in diameter and 200-300 nanometers in length. That’s big enough to transport more than 38,000 base pairs of DNA, which is enough to supply multiple gene-editing units to a target cell, Bao said.

He said the inspiration to combine BV and magnetic nanoparticles came from discussions with Rice postdoctoral researcher and co-lead author Haibao Zhu, who learned about the virus during a postdoctoral stint in Singapore but knew nothing about magnetic nanoparticles until he joined the Bao lab. The Rice team had previous experience using iron oxide nanoparticles and an applied magnetic field to open blood vessel walls just enough to let large-molecule drugs pass through.

“We really didn’t know if this would work for gene editing or not, but we thought, ‘worth a shot,'” Bao said.

The researchers use the magnetic nanoparticles to activate BV and deliver gene-editing payloads only where they’re needed. To do this, they take advantage of an immune-system protein called C3 that normally inactivates baculoviruses.

“If we combine BV with magnetic nanoparticles, we can overcome this deactivation by applying the magnetic field,” Bao said. “The beauty is that when we deliver it, gene editing occurs only at the tissue, or the part of the tissue, where we apply the magnetic field.”

Application of the magnetic field allows BV transduction, the payload-delivery process that introduces gene-editing cargo into the target cell. The payload is also DNA, which encodes both a reporter gene and the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

In tests, the BV was loaded with green fluorescent proteins or firefly luciferase. Cells with the protein glowed brightly under a microscope, and experiments showed the magnets were highly effective at targeted delivery of BV cargoes in both cell cultures and lab animals.

Bao noted his and other labs are working on the delivery of CRISPR/Cas9 with adeno-associated viruses (AAV), but he said BV’s capacity for therapeutic cargo is roughly eight times larger. “However, it is necessary to make BV transduction into target cells more efficient,” he said.

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

Spatial control of in vivo CRISPR–Cas9 genome editing via nanomagnets by Haibao Zhu, Linlin Zhang, Sheng Tong, Ciaran M. Lee, Harshavardhan Deshmukh, & Gang Bao. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-018-0318-7 Published: 12 November 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Teaching molecular and synthetic biology in grades K-12

This* story actually started in 2018 with an August 1, 2018 Harvard University news release (h/t Aug. 1, 2018 news item on phys.org) by Leslie Brownell announcing molecular and synthetic biology educational kits that been tested in the classroom. (In 2019, a new kit was released but more about that later.)

As biologists have probed deeper into the molecular and genetic underpinnings of life, K-12 schools have struggled to provide a curriculum that reflects those advances. Hands-on learning is known to be more engaging and effective for teaching science to students, but even the most basic molecular and synthetic biology experiments require equipment far beyond an average classroom’s budget, and often involve the use of bacteria and other substances that can be difficult to manage outside a controlled lab setting.

Now, a collaboration between the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and Northwestern University has developed BioBits, new educational biology kits that use freeze-dried cell-free (FD-CF) reactions to enable students to perform a range of simple, hands-on biological experiments. The BioBits kits introduce molecular and synthetic biology concepts without the need for specialized lab equipment, at a fraction of the cost of current standard experimental designs. The kits are described in two papers published in Science Advances [2018].

“The main motivation in developing these kits was to give students fun activities that allow them to actually see, smell, and touch the outcomes of the biological reactions they’re doing at the molecular level,” said Ally Huang, a co-first author on both papers who is an MIT graduate student in the lab of Wyss Founding Core Faculty member Jim Collins, Ph.D. “My hope is that they will inspire more kids to consider a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and, more generally, give all students a basic understanding of how biology works, because they may one day have to make personal or policy decisions based on modern science.”

Synthetic and molecular biology frequently make use of the cellular machinery found in E. coli bacteria to produce a desired protein. But this system requires that the bacteria be kept alive and contained for an extended period of time, and involves several complicated preparation and processing steps. The FD-CF reactions pioneered in Collins’ lab for molecular manufacturing, when combined with innovations from the lab of Michael Jewett, Ph.D. at Northwestern University, offer a solution to this problem by removing bacteria from the equation altogether.

“You can think of it like opening the hood of a car and taking the engine out: we’ve taken the ‘engine’ that drives protein production out of a bacterial cell and given it the fuel it needs, including ribosomes and amino acids, to create proteins from DNA outside of the bacteria itself,” explained Jewett, who is the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, and co-corresponding author of both papers. This collection of molecular machinery is then freeze-dried into pellets so that it becomes shelf-stable at room temperature. To initiate the transcription of DNA into RNA and the translation of that RNA into a protein, a student just needs to add the desired DNA and water to the freeze-dried pellets.

The researchers designed a range of molecular experiments that can be performed using this system, and coupled each of them to a signal that the students can easily detect with their sense of sight, smell, or touch. The first, called BioBits Bright, contains six different freeze-dried DNA templates that each encode a protein that fluoresces a different color when illuminated with blue light. To produce the proteins, students simply add these DNA templates and water to the FD-CF machinery and put the reactions in an inexpensive incubator (~$30) for several hours, and then view them with a blue light illuminator (~$15). The students can also design their own experiments to produce a desired collection of colors that they can then arrange into a visual image, a bit like using a Light Brite ©. “Challenging the students to build their own in vitro synthetic programs also allows educators to start to talk about how synthetic biologists might control biology to make important products, such as medicines or chemicals,” explained Jessica Stark, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Jewett lab at Northwestern University who is co-first author on both papers.

An expansion of the BioBits Bright kit, called BioBits Explorer, includes experiments that engage the senses of smell and touch and allow students to probe their environment using designer synthetic biosensors. In the first experiment, the FD-CF reaction pellets contain a gene that drives the conversion of isoamyl alcohol to isoamyl acetate, a compound that produces a strong banana odor. In the second experiment, the FD-CF reactions contain a gene coding for the enzyme sortase, which recognizes and links specific segments of proteins in a liquid solution together to form a squishy, semi-solid hydrogel, which the students can touch and manipulate. The third module uses another Wyss technology, the toehold switch sensor, to identify DNA extracted from a banana or a kiwi. The sensors are hairpin-shaped RNA molecules designed such that when they bind to a “trigger” RNA, they spring open and reveal a genetic sequence that produces a fluorescent protein. When fruit DNA is added to the sensor-containing FD-CF pellets, only the sensors that are designed to open in the presence of each fruit’s RNA will produce the fluorescent protein.

The researchers tested their BioBits kits in the Chicago Public School system, and demonstrated that students and teachers were able to perform the experiments in the kits with the same success as trained synthetic biology researchers. In addition to refining the kits’ design so that they can one day provide them to classrooms around the world, the authors hope to create an open-source online database where teachers and students can share their results and ideas for ways to modify the kits to explore different biological questions.

“Synthetic biology is going to be one of the defining technologies of the century, and yet it has been challenging to teach the fundamental concepts of the field in K-12 classrooms given that such efforts often require expensive, complicated equipment,” said Collins, who is a co-corresponding author of both papers and also the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science at MIT. “We show that it is possible to use freeze-dried, cell-free extracts along with freeze-dried synthetic biology components to conduct innovative educational experiments in classrooms and other low-resource settings. The BioBits kits enable us to expose young kids, older kids, and even adults to the wonders of synthetic biology and, as a result, are poised to transform science education and society.

“All scientists are passionate about what they do, and we are frustrated by the difficulty our educational system has had in inciting a similar level of passion in young people. This BioBits project demonstrates the kind of out-of-the-box thinking and refusal to accept the status quo that we value and cultivate at the Wyss Institute, and we all hope it will stimulate young people to be intrigued by science,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “It’s exciting to see this project move forward and become available to biology classrooms worldwide and, hopefully some of these students will pursue a path in science because of their experience.”

Additional authors of the papers include Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., Nina Donghia, and Tom Ferrante from the Wyss Institute; Melissa Takahashi, Ph.D. and Aaron Dy from MIT; Karen Hsu and Rachel Dubner from Northwestern University; Keith Pardee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto; and a number of teachers and students in the Chicago school system including: Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Tom Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander Hill, Jemima Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzales, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, and TaRhonda Woods.

This research was supported by the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence Grant, The Defense Threat Reduction Agency Grant, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada. [emphases mine]

Well, that list of funding agencies is quite interesting. The US Army and Air Force but not the Navy? As for what the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada is doing on that list, I can only imagine why.

This is what they were doing in 2018,

Now for the latest update, a May 7, 2019 news item on phys.org announces the BioBits Kits have been expanded,

How can high school students learn about a technology as complex and abstract as CRISPR? It’s simple: just add water.

A Northwestern University-led team has developed BioBits, a suite of hands-on educational kits that enable students to perform a range of biological experiments by adding water and simple reagents to freeze-dried cell-free reactions. The kits link complex biological concepts to visual, fluorescent readouts, so students know—after a few hours and with a single glance—the results of their experiments.

A May 7, 2019 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert and received via email) by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, provides more details,

After launching BioBits last summer, the researchers are now expanding the kit to include modules for CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats] and antibiotic resistance. A small group of Chicago-area teachers and high school students just completed the first pilot study for these new modules, which include interactive experiments and supplementary materials exploring ethics and strategies.

“After we unveiled the first kits, we next wanted to tackle current topics that are important for society,” said Northwestern’s Michael Jewett, principal investigator of the study. “That led us to two areas: antibiotic resistance and gene editing.”

Called BioBits Health, the new kits and pilot study are detailed in a paper published today (May 7 [2019]) in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Jewett is a professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology. Jessica Stark, a graduate student in Jewett’s laboratory, led the study.

Test in a tube

Instead of using live cells, the BioBits team removed the essential cellular machinery from inside the cells and freeze-dried them for shelf stability. Keeping cells alive and contained for an extended period of time involves several complicated, time-consuming preparation and processing steps as well as expensive equipment. Freeze-dried cell-free reactions bypass those complications and costs.

“These are essentially test-tube biological reactions,” said Stark, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow. “We break the cells open and use their guts, which still contain all of the necessary biological machinery to carry out a reaction. We no longer need living cells to demonstrate biology.”

This method to harness biological systems without intact, living cells became possible over the last two decades thanks to multiple innovations, including many in cell-free synthetic biology by Jewett’s lab. Not only are these experiments doable in the classroom, they also only cost pennies compared to standard high-tech experimental designs.

“I’m hopeful that students get excited about engineering biology and want to learn more,” Jewett said.

Conquering CRISPR

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past decade, CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The powerful gene-editing technology uses enzymes to cut DNA in precise locations to turn off or edit targeted genes. It could be used to halt genetic diseases, develop new medicines, make food more nutritious and much more.

BioBits Health uses three components required for CRISPR: an enzyme called the Cas9 protein, a target DNA sequence encoding a fluorescent protein and an RNA molecule that targets the fluorescent protein gene. When students add all three components — and water — to the freeze-dried cell-free system, it creates a reaction that edits, or cuts, the DNA for the fluorescent protein. If the DNA is cut, the system does not glow. If the DNA is not cut, the fluorescent protein is made, and the system glows fluorescent.

“We have linked this abstract, really advanced biological concept to the presence or absence of a fluorescent protein,” Stark said. “It’s something students can see, something they can visually understand.”

The curriculum also includes activities that challenge students to consider the ethical questions and dilemmas surrounding the use of gene-editing technologies.

“There is a lot of excitement about being able to edit genomes with these technologies,” Jewett said. “BioBits Health calls attention to a lot of important questions — not only about how CRISPR technology works but about ethics that society should be thinking about. We hope that this promotes a conversation and dialogue about such technologies.”

Reducing resistance

Jewett and Stark are both troubled by a prediction that, by the year 2050, drug-resistant bacterial infections could outpace cancer as a leading cause of death. This motivated them to help educate the future generation of scientists about how antibiotic resistance emerges and inspire them to take actions that could help limit the emergence of resistant bacteria.
In this module, students run two sets of reactions to produce a glowing fluorescent protein — one set with an antibiotic resistance gene and one set without. Students then add antibiotics. If the experiment glows, the fluorescent protein has been made, and the reaction has become resistant to antibiotics. If the experiment does not glow, then the antibiotic has worked.

“Because we’re using cell-free systems rather than organisms, we can demonstrate drug resistance in a way that doesn’t create drug-resistant bacteria,” Stark explained. “We can demonstrate these concepts without the risks.”

A supporting curriculum piece challenges students to brainstorm and research strategies for slowing the rate of emerging antibiotic resistant strains.

Part of something cool

After BioBits was launched in summer 2018, 330 schools from around the globe requested prototype kits for their science labs. The research team, which includes members from Northwestern and MIT, has received encouraging feedback from teachers, students and parents.

“The students felt like scientists and doctors by touching and using the laboratory materials provided during the demo,” one teacher said. “Even the students who didn’t seem engaged were secretly paying attention and wanted to take their turn pipetting. They knew they were part of something really cool, so we were able to connect with them in a way that was new to them.”

“My favorite part was using the equipment,” a student said. “It was a fun activity that immerses you into what top scientists are currently doing.”

###

The study, “BioBits Health: Classroom activities exploring engineering, biology and human health with fluorescent readouts,” was supported by the Army Research Office (award number W911NF-16-1-0372), the National Science Foundation (grant numbers MCB-1413563 and MCB-1716766), the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence (grant number FA8650-15-2-5518), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (grant number HDTRA1-15-10052/P00001), the Department of Energy (grant number DE-SC0018249), the Human Frontiers Science Program (grant number RGP0015/2017), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (grant number DE-EE008343) and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program. [emphases mine]

This is an image you’ll find in the abstract for the 2019 paper,

[downloaded from https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381]

Here are links and citations for the 2018 papers and the 2019 paper,

BioBits™ Explorer: A modular synthetic biology education kit by Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Jessica C. Stark, Melissa K. Takahashi, Nina Donghia, Tom Ferrante, Aaron J. Dy, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Keith Pardee, Michael C. Jewett, and James J. Collins. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5105 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5105

BioBits™ Bright: A fluorescent synthetic biology education kit by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Rachel S. Dubner, Karen J. Hsu, Thomas C. Ferrante, Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica S. Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Thomas Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander R. Hill, Jemima F. Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzalzles, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, TaRhonda Woods, Nina Donghia, Keith Pardee, James J. Collins, and Michael C. Jewett. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5107 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5107

BioBits Health: Classroom Activities Exploring Engineering, Biology, and Human Health with Fluorescent Readouts by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Jason Forbrook, Suzanne Marshalla, Faith Rodriguez, Mechelle Washington, Grant A. Rybnicky, Peter Q. Nguyen, Brenna Hasselbacher, Ramah Jabri, Rijha Kamran, Veronica Koralewski, Will Wightkin, Thomas Martinez, and Michael C. Jewett. ACS Synth. Biol., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381 Publication Date (Web): March 29, 2019

Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

Both of the 2018 papers appear to be open access while the 2019 paper is behind a paywall.

Should you be interested in acquiring a BioBits kit, you can check out the BioBits website. As for ‘conguering’ CRISPR, do we really need to look at it that way? Maybe a more humble appraoch could work just as well or even better, eh?

*’is’ removed from sentence on May 9, 2019.

Gene editing and personalized medicine: Canada

Back in the fall of 2018 I came across one of those overexcited pieces about personalized medicine and gene editing tha are out there. This one came from an unexpected source, an author who is a “PhD Scientist in Medical Science (Blood and Vasculature” (from Rick Gierczak’s LinkedIn profile).

It starts our promisingly enough although I’m beginning to dread the use of the word ‘precise’  where medicine is concerned, (from a September 17, 2018 posting on the Science Borealis blog by Rick Gierczak (Note: Links have been removed),

CRISPR-Cas9 technology was accidentally discovered in the 1980s when scientists were researching how bacteria defend themselves against viral infection. While studying bacterial DNA called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), they identified additional CRISPR-associated (Cas) protein molecules. Together, CRISPR and one of those protein molecules, termed Cas9, can locate and cut precise regions of bacterial DNA. By 2012, researchers understood that the technology could be modified and used more generally to edit the DNA of any plant or animal. In 2015, the American Association for the Advancement of Science chose CRISPR-Cas9 as science’s “Breakthrough of the Year”.

Today, CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful and precise gene-editing tool [emphasis mine] made of two molecules: a protein that cuts DNA (Cas9) and a custom-made length of RNA that works like a GPS for locating the exact spot that needs to be edited (CRISPR). Once inside the target cell nucleus, these two molecules begin editing the DNA. After the desired changes are made, they use a repair mechanism to stitch the new DNA into place. Cas9 never changes, but the CRISPR molecule must be tailored for each new target — a relatively easy process in the lab. However, it’s not perfect, and occasionally the wrong DNA is altered [emphasis mine].

Note that Gierczak makes a point of mentioning that CRISPR/Cas9 is “not perfect.” And then, he gets excited (Note: Links have been removed),

CRISPR-Cas9 has the potential to treat serious human diseases, many of which are caused by a single “letter” mutation in the genetic code (A, C, T, or G) that could be corrected by precise editing. [emphasis mine] Some companies are taking notice of the technology. A case in point is CRISPR Therapeutics, which recently developed a treatment for sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that causes a decrease in oxygen transport in the body. The therapy targets a special gene called fetal hemoglobin that’s switched off a few months after birth. Treatment involves removing stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow and editing the gene to turn it back on using CRISPR-Cas9. These new stem cells are returned to the patient ready to produce normal red blood cells. In this case, the risk of error is eliminated because the new cells are screened for the correct edit before use.

The breakthroughs shown by companies like CRISPR Therapeutics are evidence that personalized medicine has arrived. [emphasis mine] However, these discoveries will require government regulatory approval from the countries where the treatment is going to be used. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed new regulations allowing somatic (i.e., non-germ) cell editing and clinical trials to proceed. [emphasis mine]

The potential treatment for sickle cell disease is exciting but Gierczak offers no evidence that this treatment or any unnamed others constitute proof that “personalized medicine has arrived.” In fact, Goldman Sachs, a US-based investment bank, makes the case that it never will .

Cost/benefit analysis

Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (US-based), advocates for personalized medicine while noting in passing, market forces as represented by Goldman Sachs in his May 23, 2018 piece for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

One of every four new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration over the last four years was designed to become a personalized (or “targeted”) therapy that zeros in on the subset of patients likely to respond positively to it. That’s a sea change from the way drugs were developed and marketed 10 years ago.

Some of these new treatments have extraordinarily high list prices. But focusing solely on the cost of these therapies rather than on the value they provide threatens the future of personalized medicine.

… most policymakers are not asking the right questions about the benefits of these treatments for patients and society. Influenced by cost concerns, they assume that prices for personalized tests and treatments cannot be justified even if they make the health system more efficient and effective by delivering superior, longer-lasting clinical outcomes and increasing the percentage of patients who benefit from prescribed treatments.

Goldman Sachs, for example, issued a report titled “The Genome Revolution.” It argues that while “genome medicine” offers “tremendous value for patients and society,” curing patients may not be “a sustainable business model.” [emphasis mine] The analysis underlines that the health system is not set up to reap the benefits of new scientific discoveries and technologies. Just as we are on the precipice of an era in which gene therapies, gene-editing, and immunotherapies promise to address the root causes of disease, Goldman Sachs says that these therapies have a “very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.”

Let’s just chew on this one (contemplate)  for a minute”curing patients may not be ‘sustainable business model’!”

Coming down to earth: policy

While I find Gierczak to be over-enthused, he, like Abrahams, emphasizes the importance of new policy, in his case, the focus is Canadian policy. From Gierczak’s September 17, 2018 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

In Canada, companies need approval from Health Canada. But a 2004 law called the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHR Act) states that it’s a criminal offence “to alter the genome of a human cell, or in vitroembryo, that is capable of being transmitted to descendants”. The Actis so broadly written that Canadian scientists are prohibited from using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology on even somatic cells. Today, Canada is one of the few countries in the world where treating a disease with CRISPR-Cas9 is a crime.

On the other hand, some countries provide little regulatory oversight for editing either germ or somatic cells. In China, a company often only needs to satisfy the requirements of the local hospital where the treatment is being performed. And, if germ-cell editing goes wrong, there is little recourse for the future generations affected.

The AHR Act was introduced to regulate the use of reproductive technologies like in vitrofertilization and research related to cloning human embryos during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, we live in a time when medical science, and its role in Canadian society, is rapidly changing. CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful tool, and there are aspects of the technology that aren’t well understood and could potentially put patients at risk if we move ahead too quickly. But the potential benefits are significant. Updated legislation that acknowledges both the risks and current realities of genomic engineering [emphasis mine] would relieve the current obstacles and support a path toward the introduction of safe new therapies.

Criminal ban on human gene-editing of inheritable cells (in Canada)

I had no idea there was a criminal ban on the practice until reading this January 2017 editorial by Bartha Maria Knoppers, Rosario Isasi, Timothy Caulfield, Erika Kleiderman, Patrick Bedford, Judy Illes, Ubaka Ogbogu, Vardit Ravitsky, & Michael Rudnicki for (Nature) npj Regenerative Medicine (Note: Links have been removed),

Driven by the rapid evolution of gene editing technologies, international policy is examining which regulatory models can address the ensuing scientific, socio-ethical and legal challenges for regenerative and personalised medicine.1 Emerging gene editing technologies, including the CRISPR/Cas9 2015 scientific breakthrough,2 are powerful, relatively inexpensive, accurate, and broadly accessible research tools.3 Moreover, they are being utilised throughout the world in a wide range of research initiatives with a clear eye on potential clinical applications. Considering the implications of human gene editing for selection, modification and enhancement, it is time to re-examine policy in Canada relevant to these important advances in the history of medicine and science, and the legislative and regulatory frameworks that govern them. Given the potential human reproductive applications of these technologies, careful consideration of these possibilities, as well as ethical and regulatory scrutiny must be a priority.4

With the advent of human embryonic stem cell research in 1978, the birth of Dolly (the cloned sheep) in 1996 and the Raelian cloning hoax in 2003, the environment surrounding the enactment of Canada’s 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) was the result of a decade of polarised debate,5 fuelled by dystopian and utopian visions for future applications. Rightly or not, this led to the AHRA prohibition on a wide range of activities, including the creation of embryos (s. 5(1)(b)) or chimeras (s. 5(1)(i)) for research and in vitro and in vivo germ line alterations (s. 5(1)(f)). Sanctions range from a fine (up to $500,000) to imprisonment (up to 10 years) (s. 60 AHRA).

In Canada, the criminal ban on gene editing appears clear, the Act states that “No person shall knowingly […] alter the genome of a cell of a human being or in vitro embryo such that the alteration is capable of being transmitted to descendants;” [emphases mine] (s. 5(1)(f) AHRA). This approach is not shared worldwide as other countries such as the United Kingdom, take a more regulatory approach to gene editing research.1 Indeed, as noted by the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1982, criminal law should be ‘an instrument of last resort’ used solely for “conduct which is culpable, seriously harmful, and generally conceived of as deserving of punishment”.6 A criminal ban is a suboptimal policy tool for science as it is inflexible, stifles public debate, and hinders responsiveness to the evolving nature of science and societal attitudes.7 In contrast, a moratorium such as the self-imposed research moratorium on human germ line editing called for by scientists in December 20158 can at least allow for a time limited pause. But like bans, they may offer the illusion of finality and safety while halting research required to move forward and validate innovation.

On October 1st, 2016, Health Canada issued a Notice of Intent to develop regulations under the AHRA but this effort is limited to safety and payment issues (i.e. gamete donation). Today, there is a need for Canada to revisit the laws and policies that address the ethical, legal and social implications of human gene editing. The goal of such a critical move in Canada’s scientific and legal history would be a discussion of the right of Canadians to benefit from the advancement of science and its applications as promulgated in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights9 and article 15(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,10 which Canada has signed and ratified. Such an approach would further ensure the freedom of scientific endeavour both as a principle of a liberal democracy and as a social good, while allowing Canada to be engaged with the international scientific community.

Even though it’s a bit old, I still recommend reading the open access editorial in full, if you have the time.

One last thing abut the paper, the acknowledgements,

Sponsored by Canada’s Stem Cell Network, the Centre of Genomics and Policy of McGill University convened a ‘think tank’ on the future of human gene editing in Canada with legal and ethics experts as well as representatives and observers from government in Ottawa (August 31, 2016). The experts were Patrick Bedford, Janetta Bijl, Timothy Caulfield, Judy Illes, Rosario Isasi, Jonathan Kimmelman, Erika Kleiderman, Bartha Maria Knoppers, Eric Meslin, Cate Murray, Ubaka Ogbogu, Vardit Ravitsky, Michael Rudnicki, Stephen Strauss, Philip Welford, and Susan Zimmerman. The observers were Geneviève Dubois-Flynn, Danika Goosney, Peter Monette, Kyle Norrie, and Anthony Ridgway.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Both McGill and the Stem Cell Network pop up again. A November 8, 2017 article about the need for new Canadian gene-editing policies by Tom Blackwell for the National Post features some familiar names (Did someone have a budget for public relations and promotion?),

It’s one of the most exciting, and controversial, areas of health science today: new technology that can alter the genetic content of cells, potentially preventing inherited disease — or creating genetically enhanced humans.

But Canada is among the few countries in the world where working with the CRISPR gene-editing system on cells whose DNA can be passed down to future generations is a criminal offence, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail.

This week, one major science group announced it wants that changed, calling on the federal government to lift the prohibition and allow researchers to alter the genome of inheritable “germ” cells and embryos.

The potential of the technology is huge and the theoretical risks like eugenics or cloning are overplayed, argued a panel of the Stem Cell Network.

The step would be a “game-changer,” said Bartha Knoppers, a health-policy expert at McGill University, in a presentation to the annual Till & McCulloch Meetings of stem-cell and regenerative-medicine researchers [These meetings were originally known as the Stem Cell Network’s Annual General Meeting {AGM}]. [emphases mine]

“I’m completely against any modification of the human genome,” said the unidentified meeting attendee. “If you open this door, you won’t ever be able to close it again.”

If the ban is kept in place, however, Canadian scientists will fall further behind colleagues in other countries, say the experts behind the statement say; they argue possible abuses can be prevented with good ethical oversight.

“It’s a human-reproduction law, it was never meant to ban and slow down and restrict research,” said Vardit Ravitsky, a University of Montreal bioethicist who was part of the panel. “It’s a sort of historical accident … and now our hands are tied.”

There are fears, as well, that CRISPR could be used to create improved humans who are genetically programmed to have certain facial or other features, or that the editing could have harmful side effects. Regardless, none of it is happening in Canada, good or bad.

In fact, the Stem Cell Network panel is arguably skirting around the most contentious applications of the technology. It says it is asking the government merely to legalize research for its own sake on embryos and germ cells — those in eggs and sperm — not genetic editing of embryos used to actually get women pregnant.

The highlighted portions in the last two paragraphs of the excerpt were written one year prior to the claims by a Chinese scientist that he had run a clinical trial resulting in gene-edited twins, Lulu and Nana. (See my my November 28, 2018 posting for a comprehensive overview of the original furor). I have yet to publish a followup posting featuring the news that the CRISPR twins may have been ‘improved’ more extensively than originally realized. The initial reports about the twins focused on an illness-related reason (making them HIV ‘immune’) but made no mention of enhanced cognitive skills a side effect of eliminating the gene that would make them HIV ‘immune’. To date, the researcher has not made the bulk of his data available for an in-depth analysis to support his claim that he successfully gene-edited the twins. As well, there were apparently seven other pregnancies coming to term as part of the researcher’s clinical trial and there has been no news about those births.

Risk analysis innovation

Before moving onto the innovation of risk analysis, I want to focus a little more on at least one of the risks that gene-editing might present. Gierczak noted that CRISPR/Cas9 is “not perfect,” which acknowledges the truth but doesn’t convey all that much information.

While the terms ‘precision’ and ‘scissors’ are used frequently when describing the CRISPR technique, scientists actually mean that the technique is significantly ‘more precise’ than other techniques but they are not referencing an engineering level of precision. As for the ‘scissors’, it’s an analogy scientists like to use but in fact CRISPR is not as efficient and precise as a pair of scissors.

Michael Le Page in a July 16, 2018 article for New Scientist lays out some of the issues (Note: A link has been removed),

A study of CRIPSR suggests we shouldn’t rush into trying out CRISPR genome editing inside people’s bodies just yet. The technique can cause big deletions or rearrangements of DNA [emphasis mine], says Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, meaning some therapies based on CRISPR may not be quite as safe as we thought.

The CRISPR genome editing technique is revolutionising biology, enabling us to create new varieties of plants and animals and develop treatments for a wide range of diseases.

The CRISPR Cas9 protein works by cutting the DNA of a cell in a specific place. When the cell repairs the damage, a few DNA letters get changed at this spot – an effect that can be exploited to disable genes.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. But in studies of mice and human cells, Bradley’s team has found that in around a fifth of cells, CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long. These surprising changes are sometimes thousands of letters long.

“I do believe the findings are robust,” says Gaetan Burgio of the Australian National University, an expert on CRISPR who has debunked previous studies questioning the method’s safety. “This is a well-performed study and fairly significant.”

I covered the Bradley paper and the concerns in a July 17, 2018 posting ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle‘. (The ‘kerfufle’ was in reference to a report that the CRISPR market was affected by the publication of Bradley’s paper.)

Despite Health Canada not moving swiftly enough for some researchers, they have nonetheless managed to release an ‘outcome’ report about a consultation/analysis started in October 2016. Before getting to the consultation’s outcome, it’s interesting to look at how the consultation’s call for response was described (from Health Canada’s Toward a strengthened Assisted Human Reproduction Act ; A Consultation with Canadians on Key Policy Proposals webpage),

In October 2016, recognizing the need to strengthen the regulatory framework governing assisted human reproduction in Canada, Health Canada announced its intention to bring into force the dormant sections of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act  and to develop the necessary supporting regulations.

This consultation document provides an overview of the key policy proposals that will help inform the development of regulations to support bringing into force Section 10, Section 12 and Sections 45-58 of the Act. Specifically, the policy proposals describe the Department’s position on the following:

Section 10: Safety of Donor Sperm and Ova

  • Scope and application
  • Regulated parties and their regulatory obligations
  • Processing requirements, including donor suitability assessment
  • Record-keeping and traceability

Section 12: Reimbursement

  • Expenditures that may be reimbursed
  • Process for reimbursement
  • Creation and maintenance of records

Sections 45-58: Administration and Enforcement

  • Scope of the administration and enforcement framework
  • Role of inspectors designated under the Act

The purpose of the document is to provide Canadians with an opportunity to review the policy proposals and to provide feedback [emphasis mine] prior to the Department finalizing policy decisions and developing the regulations. In addition to requesting stakeholders’ general feedback on the policy proposals, the Department is also seeking input on specific questions, which are included throughout the document.

It took me a while to find the relevant section (in particular, take note of ‘Federal Regulatory Oversight’),

3.2. AHR in Canada Today

Today, an increasing number of Canadians are turning to AHR technologies to grow or build their families. A 2012 Canadian studyFootnote 1 found that infertility is on the rise in Canada, with roughly 16% of heterosexual couples experiencing infertility. In addition to rising infertility, the trend of delaying marriage and parenthood, scientific advances in cryopreserving ova, and the increasing use of AHR by LGBTQ2 couples and single parents to build a family are all contributing to an increase in the use of AHR technologies.

The growing use of reproductive technologies by Canadians to help build their families underscores the need to strengthen the AHR Act. While the approach to regulating AHR varies from country to country, Health Canada has considered international best practices and the need for regulatory alignment when developing the proposed policies set out in this document. …

3.2.1 Federal Regulatory Oversight

Although the scope of the AHR Act was significantly reduced in 2012 and some of the remaining sections have not yet been brought into force, there are many important sections of the Act that are currently administered and enforced by Health Canada, as summarized generally below:

Section 5: Prohibited Scientific and Research Procedures
Section 5 prohibits certain types of scientific research and clinical procedures that are deemed unacceptable, including: human cloning, the creation of an embryo for non-reproductive purposes, maintaining an embryo outside the human body beyond the fourteenth day, sex selection for non-medical reasons, altering the genome in a way that could be transmitted to descendants, and creating a chimera or a hybrid. [emphasis mine]

….

It almost seems as if the they were hiding the section that broached the human gene-editing question. It doesn’t seem to have worked as it appears, there are some very motivated parties determined to reframe the discussion. Health Canada’s ‘outocme’ report, published March 2019, What we heard: A summary of scanning and consultations on what’s next for health product regulation reflects the success of those efforts,

1.0 Introduction and Context

Scientific and technological advances are accelerating the pace of innovation. These advances are increasingly leading to the development of health products that are better able to predict, define, treat, and even cure human diseases. Globally, many factors are driving regulators to think about how to enable health innovation. To this end, Health Canada has been expanding beyond existing partnerships and engaging both domestically and internationally. This expanding landscape of products and services comes with a range of new challenges and opportunities.

In keeping up to date with emerging technologies and working collaboratively through strategic partnerships, Health Canada seeks to position itself as a regulator at the forefront of health innovation. Following the targeted sectoral review of the Health and Biosciences Sector Regulatory Review consultation by the Treasury Board Secretariat, Health Canada held a number of targeted meetings with a broad range of stakeholders.

This report outlines the methodologies used to look ahead at the emerging health technology environment, [emphasis mine] the potential areas of focus that resulted, and the key findings from consultations.

… the Department identified the following key drivers that are expected to shape the future of health innovation:

  1. The use of “big data” to inform decision-making: Health systems are generating more data, and becoming reliant on this data. The increasing accuracy, types, and volume of data available in real time enable automation and machine learning that can forecast activity, behaviour, or trends to support decision-making.
  2. Greater demand for citizen agency: Canadians increasingly want and have access to more information, resources, options, and platforms to manage their own health (e.g., mobile apps, direct-to-consumer services, decentralization of care).
  3. Increased precision and personalization in health care delivery: Diagnostic tools and therapies are increasingly able to target individual patients with customized therapies (e.g., individual gene therapy).
  4. Increased product complexity: Increasingly complex products do not fit well within conventional product classifications and standards (e.g., 3D printing).
  5. Evolving methods for production and distribution: In some cases, manufacturers and supply chains are becoming more distributed, challenging the current framework governing production and distribution of health products.
  6. The ways in which evidence is collected and used are changing: The processes around new drug innovation, research and development, and designing clinical trials are evolving in ways that are more flexible and adaptive.

With these key drivers in mind, the Department selected the following six emerging technologies for further investigation to better understand how the health product space is evolving:

  1. Artificial intelligence, including activities such as machine learning, neural networks, natural language processing, and robotics.
  2. Advanced cell therapies, such as individualized cell therapies tailor-made to address specific patient needs.
  3. Big data, from sources such as sensors, genetic information, and social media that are increasingly used to inform patient and health care practitioner decisions.
  4. 3D printing of health products (e.g., implants, prosthetics, cells, tissues).
  5. New ways of delivering drugs that bring together different product lines and methods (e.g., nano-carriers, implantable devices).
  6. Gene editing, including individualized gene therapies that can assist in preventing and treating certain diseases.

Next, to test the drivers identified and further investigate emerging technologies, the Department consulted key organizations and thought leaders across the country with expertise in health innovation. To this end, Health Canada held seven workshops with over 140 representatives from industry associations, small-to-medium sized enterprises and start-ups, larger multinational companies, investors, researchers, and clinicians in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. [emphases mine]

The ‘outocme’ report, ‘What we heard …’, is well worth reading in its entirety; it’s about 9 pp.

I have one comment, ‘stakeholders’ don’t seem to include anyone who isn’t “from industry associations, small-to-medium sized enterprises and start-ups, larger multinational companies, investors, researchers, and clinician” or from “Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.” Aren’t the rest of us stakeholders?

Innovating risk analysis

This line in the report caught my eye (from Health Canada’s Toward a strengthened Assisted Human Reproduction Act ; A Consultation with Canadians on Key Policy Proposals webpage),

There is increasing need to enable innovation in a flexible, risk-based way, with appropriate oversight to ensure safety, quality, and efficacy. [emphases mine]

It reminded me of the 2019 federal budget (from my March 22, 2019 posting). One comment before proceeding, regulation and risk are tightly linked and, so, by innovating regulation they are by exttension alos innovating risk analysis,

… Budget 2019 introduces the first three “Regulatory Roadmaps” to specifically address stakeholder issues and irritants in these sectors, informed by over 140 responses [emphasis mine] from businesses and Canadians across the country, as well as recommendations from the Economic Strategy Tables.

Introducing Regulatory Roadmaps

These Roadmaps lay out the Government’s plans to modernize regulatory frameworks, without compromising our strong health, safety, and environmental protections. They contain proposals for legislative and regulatory amendments as well as novel regulatory approaches to accommodate emerging technologies, including the use of regulatory sandboxes and pilot projects—better aligning our regulatory frameworks with industry realities.

Budget 2019 proposes the necessary funding and legislative revisions so that regulatory departments and agencies can move forward on the Roadmaps, including providing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and Transport Canada with up to $219.1 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, (with $0.5 million in remaining amortization), and $3.1 million per year on an ongoing basis.

In the coming weeks, the Government will be releasing the full Regulatory Roadmaps for each of the reviews, as well as timelines for enacting specific initiatives, which can be grouped in the following three main areas:

What Is a Regulatory Sandbox? Regulatory sandboxes are controlled “safe spaces” in which innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms can be tested without immediately being subject to all of the regulatory requirements.
– European Banking Authority, 2017

Establishing a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative medical products
The regulatory approval system has not kept up with new medical technologies and processes. Health Canada proposes to modernize regulations to put in place a regulatory sandbox for new and innovative products, such as tissues developed through 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and gene therapies targeted to specific individuals. [emphasis mine]

Modernizing the regulation of clinical trials
Industry and academics have expressed concerns that regulations related to clinical trials are overly prescriptive and inconsistent. Health Canada proposes to implement a risk-based approach [emphasis mine] to clinical trials to reduce costs to industry and academics by removing unnecessary requirements for low-risk drugs and trials. The regulations will also provide the agri-food industry with the ability to carry out clinical trials within Canada on products such as food for special dietary use and novel foods.

Does the government always get 140 responses from a consultation process? Moving on, I agree with finding new approaches to regulatory processes and oversight and, by extension, new approaches to risk analysis.

Earlier in this post, I asked if someone had a budget for public relations/promotion. I wasn’t joking. My March 22, 2019 posting also included these line items in the proposed 2019 budget,

Budget 2019 proposes to make additional investments in support of the following organizations:
Stem Cell Network: Stem cell research—pioneered by two Canadians in the 1960s [James Till and Ernest McCulloch]—holds great promise for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, spinal cord injury, cancer, and many other diseases and disorders. The Stem Cell Network is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications and commercial products. To support this important work and foster Canada’s leadership in stem cell research, Budget 2019 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $18 million over three years, starting in 2019–20.

Genome Canada: The insights derived from genomics—the study of the entire genetic information of living things encoded in their DNA and related molecules and proteins—hold the potential for breakthroughs that can improve the lives of Canadians and drive innovation and economic growth. Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing genomics science and technology in order to create economic and social benefits for Canadians. To support Genome Canada’s operations, Budget 2019 proposes to provide Genome Canada with $100.5 million over five years, starting in 2020–21. This investment will also enable Genome Canada to launch new large-scale research competitions and projects, in collaboration with external partners, ensuring that Canada’s research community continues to have access to the resources needed to make transformative scientific breakthroughs and translate these discoveries into real-world applications.

Years ago, I managed to find a webpage with all of the proposals various organizations were submitting to a government budget committee. It was eye-opening. You can tell which organizations were able to hire someone who knew the current government buzzwords and the things that a government bureaucrat would want to hear and the organizations that didn’t.

Of course, if the government of the day is adamantly against or uninterested, no amount of persusasion will work to get your organization more money in the budget.

Finally

Reluctantly, I am inclined to explore the topic of emerging technologies such as gene-editing not only in the field of agriculture (for gene-editing of plants, fish, and animals see my November 28, 2018 posting) but also with humans. At the very least, it needs to be discussed whether we choose to participate or not.

If you are interested in the arguments against changing Canada’s prohibition against gene-editing of humans, there’s an Ocotber 2, 2017 posting on Impact Ethics by Françoise Baylis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University, and Alana Cattapan, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, which makes some compelling arguments. Of course, it was written before the CRISPR twins (my November 28, 2018 posting).

Recaliing CRISPR Therapeutics (mentioned by Gierczak), the company received permission to run clinical trials in the US in October 2018 after the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) lifted an earlier ban on their trials according to an Oct. 10, 2018 article by Frank Vinhuan for exome,

The partners also noted that their therapy is making progress outside of the U.S. They announced that they have received regulatory clearance in “multiple countries” to begin tests of the experimental treatment in both sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, …

It seems to me that the quotes around “multiple countries” are meant to suggest doubt of some kind. Generally speaking, company representatives make those kinds of generalizations when they’re trying to pump up their copy. E.g., 50% increase in attendance  but no whole numbers to tell you what that means. It could mean two people attended the first year and then brought a friend the next year or 100 people attended and the next year there were 150.

Despite attempts to declare personalized medicine as having arrived, I think everything is still in flux with no preordained outcome. The future has yet to be determined but it will be and I , for one, would like to have some say in the matter.

The secret lives of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas (CRISPR-associated) proteins

This research isn’t quite as exciting as the title promises but it is important as it attempts to answer some fundamental questions about Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-CRISPR-Associated (Cas).proteins. From a June 13, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Recently published research from the University of Georgia and UConn Health [University of Connecticu Health Center] provides new insight about the basic biological mechanisms of the RNA-based viral immune system known as CRISPR-Cas.

CRISPR-Cas, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR-associated, is a defense mechanism that has evolved in bacteria and archaea that these single celled organisms use to ward off attacks from viruses and other invaders. When a bacterium is attacked by a virus, it makes a record of the virus’s DNA by chopping it up into pieces and incorporating a small segment of the invader’s DNA into its own genome. It then uses this DNA to make RNAs that bind with a bacterial protein that then kills the viral DNA.

The system has been studied worldwide in hopes that it can be used to edit genes that predispose humans to countless diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. However, to reach this end goal, scientists must gain further understanding of the basic biological process that leads to successful immunity against the invading virus.

A June 12, 2018 University of Georgia news release by Jessica Luton and Jessica McBride, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Distinguished Research Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project Michael Terns and UGA postdoctoral fellow Masami Shiimori collaborated with Brenton Graveley and Sandra Garrett at UConn Health to sequence millions of genomes to learn more about the process. Graveley is professor and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences and associate director of the Institute for Systems Genomics at UConn Health, and Garrett is a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory.

“This research is more fundamental and basic than studies that are trying to determine how to use CRISPR for therapeutic or biomedical application,” said Terns. “Our study is about the unique first step in the process, known as adaptation, where fragments of DNA are recognized and integrated into the host genome and provide immunity for future generations.”

Previously, researchers did not understand how the cell recognized the virus as an invader, nor which bacterial proteins were necessary for successful integration and immunity.

“In this project we were able to determine how the bacterial immune system creates a molecular memory to remove harmful viral DNA sequences and how this is passed down to the bacterial progeny,” said Graveley.

By looking at patterns in the data, the researchers discovered several new findings about how two previously poorly characterized Cas4 proteins function in tandem with Cas1 and Cas2 proteins found in all CRISPR-Cas systems.

In this initial adaptation phase, one of two different Cas4 proteins recognizes a signaling placeholder in the sequence that occurs adjacent to the snippet of DNA that is excised.

When the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins are present in the cell with either of two Cas4 protein nucleases, Cas4-1 and Cas4-2, they act like the generals of this army-based immune system, communicating uniform sized clipped DNA fragments, directions on where to go next and ultimately instructions that destroy the lethal DNA fragment.

In order for a cell to successfully recognize and excise strands of DNA, incorporate them into its own genome and achieve immunity, the Cas4 proteins must be present in conjunction with the Cas1 and Cas2 proteins.

“Cas4 is present in many CRISPR-Cas systems, but the roles of the proteins were mysterious,” said Terns. “In our system, there are two Cas4 proteins that are essential for governing this process so that functional RNAs are made and immunity is conferred”

To achieve these findings, the research team from the University of Georgia created strains of archaeal organisms with key genetic deletions.

Hundreds of millions of DNA fragments captured in the CRISPR loci were sent to the Graveley lab in Farmington, Connecticut, where they were sequenced with the Illumina MiSeq system. The researchers then used supercomputing for bioinformatics analysis and data interpretation.

While there is still much to learn about the biological mechanisms involved in CRISPR-Cas systems, this research tells scientists more about the way these proteins work together to save the cell and achieve immunity.

“The data are so clear. We sequenced millions and millions of DNA fragments captured in CRISPR loci in different genetic strains and found the same results consistently,” he said.

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

Cas4 Nucleases Define the PAM, Length, and Orientation of DNA Fragments Integrated at CRISPR Loci by Masami Shiimori, Sandra C. Garrett, Brenton R. Graveley, Michael P. Terns.Molecular Cell Volume 70, Issue 5, p814–824.e6, 7 June 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.molcel.2018.05.002

This paper is behind a paywall.

Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)

I love the little things.. Groundcherries are just the right combination of sweet and tart.

Courtesy of Boyce Thompson Institute

They’re not in the stores very often and I wondered about that. Luckily, an  October 1, 2018 Boyce Thompson Institute news release by Mike Carroll (also on EurekAlert) explains why that is and how scientists are trying to overcome the difficulties,

You might not have heard of the groundcherry, or at least, never tasted one. But that could soon change thanks to research from the Van Eck Laboratory at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI).

The groundcherry (Physalis pruinosa) is approximately the same size as a cherry tomato, but with a much sweeter flavor. The tropical-tasting fruit is also a powerhouse in terms of nutritional value. Packed with Vitamin C, Vitamin B, beta-carotene, phytosterols, and antioxidants, plus anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties, this tiny fruit might just be the next superfood.

“We feel there is potential for these to become a specialty fruit crop and to be grown on a larger scale in the US,” said Joyce Van Eck, associate professor at BTI.

However, even with their delicious flavor and nutritional value, groundcherries remain an underutilized crop in the United States. Several characteristics make them unsuitable for large-scale agriculture. [emphasis mine] In the October 1, 2018 issue of Nature Plants, Van Eck and colleagues present research which could change that and make groundcherries a common household name thanks to the genome editing tool CRISPR.

CRISPR has great promise for increasing crop productivity, especially for orphan crops such as groundcherries, which often contain undesirable characteristics resembling wild relatives. Leveraging knowledge from model crops (such as the tomato) can improve plant architecture (growth habit), flower production, fruit size, and more.

Selections for mutations in tomatoes have led to improvements in yield and Van Eck and her collaborator, Zach Lippman, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hypothesized that groundcherry genes could be similarly modified for immediate improvements. One concern with the groundcherry is its weedy growth habit. Genetic alterations have led to changes in the hormone that regulates flowering, producing plants which are more compact with fruit in clusters. They also targeted ways to increase fruit size and weight [emphases mine] through a CRISPR-generated mutation, leading to fifty-percent more fruit along a given stem and more seedy sections in each fruit.

“It’s exciting that we can take what we have learned in tomato and apply it to distantly related species,” said Van Eck.

Van Eck is also focused on fixing problems caused by fruit drop. [emphasis mine] Groundcherries drop to the ground, often before fully ripening.

This puts the fruit at risk for damage and creates a labor-intensive harvest process. In addition, fruit having to be gathered up from the ground causes concerns for food safety with potential for foodborne illness. A jointless mutation in tomatoes could provide the inspiration for using gene-editing to stop fruit drop in groundcherries.

“Physalis is the perfect candidate for looking at getting the fruit to not drop,” said Van Eck. “Gene editing might be the only way to fix this in the groundcherry.”

This study represents the first step towards improving the groundcherry and this work could be extended to target additional genes benefiting a range of consumer desirable traits.

Veronique Greenwood wrote an October 6, 2018 article for the New York Times about the scientists and the work featured in the October 1, 2018 issue of ‘Nature Plants’ and two scientists from Van Eck’s lab, Nathan T. Reem and Esperanza Shenstone, have written a November 14, 2018 essay about the work for The Conversation (h/t phys.org).

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

Rapid improvement of domestication traits in an orphan crop by genome editing by Zachary H. Lemmon, Nathan T. Reem, Justin Dalrymple, Sebastian Soyk, Kerry E. Swartwood, Daniel Rodriguez-Leal, Joyce Van Eck, & Zachary B. Lippman. Nature Plants volume 4, pages766–770 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-018-0259-x Published: 01 October 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicine, healing, and big money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infections from pigs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is open access.

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

What is it to be human?

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

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

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

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

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

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

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

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

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

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

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

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

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

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

Acoustic nanomotors deliver Cas9-sgRNA complex to the cell

The gene editing tool .CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) does feature in this story but only as a minor character; the real focus is on the delivery system. From a February 9, 2018 news item on Nanowerk ()Note: A link has been removed),

In cancer research, the “Cas-9–sgRNA” complex is an effective genomic editing tool, but its delivery across the cell membrane to the target (tumor) genome has not yet been satisfactorily solved.

American and Danish scientists have now developed an active nanomotor for the efficient transport, delivery, and release of this gene scissoring system. As detailed in their paper in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“Active Intracellular Delivery of a Cas9/sgRNA Complex Using Ultrasound-Propelled Nanomotors”), their nanovehicle is propelled towards its target by ultrasound.

The publisher (Wiley) has made this image illustrating the work available,

Courtesy: Wiley

A February 9, 2018 Wiley Publications news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Genomic engineering as a promising cancer therapeutic approach has experienced a tremendous surge since the discovery of the adaptive bacterial immune defense system “CRISPR” and its potential as a gene editing tool over a decade ago. Engineered CRISPR systems for gene editing now contain two main components, a single guide RNA or sgRNA and Cas-9 nuclease. While the sgRNA guides the nuclease to the specified gene sequence, Cas-9 nuclease performs its editing with surgical efficiency. However, the delivery of the large machinery to the target genome is still problematic. The authors of the Angewandte Chemie study, Liangfang Zhang and Joseph Wang from the University of California San Diego, and their colleagues now propose ultrasound-propelled gold nanowires as an active transport/release vehicle for the Cas9-sgRNA complex over the membrane.

Gold nanowires may cross a membrane passively, but thanks to their rod- or wirelike asymmetric shape, active motion can be triggered by ultrasound. “The asymmetric shape of the gold nanowire motor, given by the fabrication process, is essential for the acoustic propulsion,” the authors remarked. They assembled the vehicle by attaching the Cas-9 protein/RNA complex to the gold nanowire through sulfide bridges. These reduceable linkages have the advantage that inside the tumor cell, the bonds would be broken by glutathione, a natural reducing compound enriched in tumor cells. The Cas9-sgRNA would be released and sent to the nucleus to do its editing work, for, example, the knockout of a gene.

As a test system, the scientists monitored the suppression of fluorescence emitted by green fluorescence protein expressing melanoma B16F10 cells. Ultrasound was applied for five minutes, which accelerated the nanomotor carrying the Cas9-sgRNA complex across the membrane, accelerating it even inside the cell, as the authors noted. Moreover, they observed their Cas9-sgRNA complex effectively suppressing fluorescence with only tiny concentrations of the complex needed.

Thus, both the effective use of an acoustic nanomotor as an active transporter and the small payload needed for efficient gene knockout are intriguing results of the study. The simplicity of the system, which uses only few and readily available components, is another remarkable achievement.

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

Active Intracellular Delivery of a Cas9/sgRNA Complex Using Ultrasound-Propelled Nanomotors by Malthe Hansen-Bruhn, Dr. Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, Dr. Mara Beltrán-Gastélum, Prof. Jing Zhao, Dr. Doris E. Ramírez-Herrera, Pavimol Angsantikul, Prof. Kurt Vesterager Gothelf, Prof. Liangfang Zhang, and Prof. Joseph Wang. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Vol. 57 Issue 7 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201713082 Version of Record online: 6 FEB 2018

© 2018 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.