Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Human Genetic Alteration and Gold Mines: California's Stem Cell Agency Takes a Hard Look at Research Standards

The $3 billion California stem cell agency next Thursday will convene a day-long examination of human gene editing, a field that could be a “gold mine for biotechnology” and perhaps alter the human race permanently.

“Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.” is the way Wired magazine put it in a headline on a lengthy overview article last July.

The piece by Amy Waxmen said that gene editing has “already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS.”

The key focus is on CRISPR, which is a technique developed at UC Berkeley and which is involved in substantial amounts of the research funded by the California stem cell agency. CRISPR, according to one description, makes changing genes as easy as cutting and pasting changes in this article.

The session next week at Los Angeles International Airport is chock-a-block with big names in
scientific research and ethics, including David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner, former president of Caltech and a former member of the stem cell agency board. At an international CRISPR
David Baltimore, Pasadena Now photo
 conclave in December, Baltimore said,
“The overriding question is when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance.”
The New York Times reported that the group called for what would be, “in effect,” a moratorium on making inheritable changes to the human genome.

In addition to Baltimore, next week’s California conference is scheduled to hear from Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin and a leading authority on bioethics; Hank Greely, a specialist in bioscience issues at Stanford law school; Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist from Canada’s McGill University, and Charis Thompson, founding director of the Science,
Charis Thompson, UC Santa Cruz photo
Technology, and Society Center at UC Berkeley, along with a number of scientific researchers.

The agenda for the meeting states that the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), “will continue to support groundbreaking stem cell treatments and technologies, including gamete and embryo research, from their inception to translation.”

“In light of recent science-policy initiatives,” said the CIRM document, the agency’s research standards group has been asked to examine the agency’s policies dealing with human gene editing.

“One objective of this review is to ensure CIRM research continues to be conducted under the highest medical and ethical standards,” the agency said.

An upshot from next week’s meetings could well be changes in what is permitted to be done by the hundreds of researchers who have funding from the stem cell agency. Beyond that, decisions by the Golden State agency are likely to influence other funding agencies and researchers globally.

CIRM already has alliances with a number of countries, including China, Spain, Israel and Poland. And the agency is closely watched by many from outside California.

Many of the stem cell agency’s meetings of much less import are available live on the Internet. The meeting agenda initially did not list such access. The California Stem Cell Report earlier this week queried the agency about audiocast or Internet access to the session.

Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, replied late today, 
“When it comes to CIRM, transparent is the new black. Yes, we will be having an audio feed for the standards working group on Feb 4th. Details will be posted on the website shortly.”
The agenda also has links to several useful background pieces along with the names of other invited participants.
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