Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Smell of Money and Gene Editing of Human Embryos -- Not to Mention the Breakthrough Science

"Horror to be avoided," "superbabies" and "what it means to be human" -- Just some of the language that turned up today concerning the news about the first human embryo editing experiment in the United States. 

Publications ranging from Wired to the Financial Times all had pieces discussing the work led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the University of Oregon in collaboration with researchers from California's Salk Institute, China and Korea. A search on Google news this afternoon turned up more than 1,000 citations dealing with the work.

Details of the science can be found in the journal Nature with a critique by UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler on his blog. He praised the research and said it "raises the stakes on future CRISPR use in humans." Elsewhere, the implications of the work also generated both heat and caution.

 The headline on a commentary in the Chicago Tribune said,
"Don't fear the rise of super babies. Worry about who will own genetic engineering technology."
The piece was written by bioethicist Arthur Caplan. He said,
"Freaking out over impending super babies and mutant humans with the powers of comic book characters is not what is needed....How close are they to making freakish super people using their technology? About as close as we are to traveling intergalactically using current rocket technology."
Caplan continued,
"We need to determine who should own the techniques for genetic engineering. Important patent fights are underway among the technology's inventors. That means people smell lots of money. And that means it is time to talk about who gets to own what and charge what, lest we reinvent the world of the $250,000 drug in this area of medicine."
Pam Belluck of the New York Times reported that the findings are "sure to renew ethical concerns that some might try to design babies with certain traits, like greater intelligence or athleticism."

She interviewed Hank Greely, director of Stanford's Center for Law and Biosciences
"'If you’re in one camp, it’s a horror to be avoided, and if you’re in the other camp, it’s desirable,' Dr. Greely said. 'That’s going to continue to be the fight, whether it’s a feature or a bug.'
"For now, the fight is theoretical. Congress has barred the Food and Drug Administration from considering clinical trials involving germline engineering. And the National Institutes of Health is prohibited from funding gene-editing research in human embryos."
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Science in Berkeley, said in a news release,
"We have not yet engaged in processes that would promote the`broad societal consensus’ about human germline modification that the National Academies of Sciences and other prominent advocates of gene editing have recommended. Until that is achieved, we call on scientists around the world to refrain from research aimed at refining gene editing for use in human reproduction."
Bradley Fikes of the Union-Tribune in San Diego, a hotbed of biotech activity and the home of Salk, wrote that the study
"...brings to a head fundamental questions about what it means to be human, and whether changing the human genome would also change the human identity. And scientists — including those involved in the study — say it’s time for the public to speak up."
Given that this type of research is not funded by the United States government, just where the money came from is of interest. The Salk Institute had the answer. It said in a news release that the funding was provided by the "Oregon Health and Science University, the Institute for Basic Science, the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation, the Moxie Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and Shenzhen Municipal Government of China."

Some of the money "compensated" the women who provided the eggs, according to an article by Kelly Servick in the journal Science. Compensation, as opposed to expense reimbursement, is problematic in some areas of research. For example, it is banned in research that is funded by the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

The stem cell agency wrote about the research last week after the findings leaked out early. In February 2016, the agency convened a day-long session to examine issues involving gene editing. Last summer it issued new regulations that say that consent forms involving CIRM research must be modified to include a mention of genetic research. Added was the following phrase: "donated embryos [blastocysts], derived cells or cell products may be used in research involving genetic manipulation."

Regarding the future of the research, Mitalipov told the Financial Times that he wanted to perform regulated clinical trials at some point in the U.S. Unless something changes, he said that “unfortunately this technology will be shifted to an unregulated place." Sphere: Related Content

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