The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.
Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.
A study published last week in the journal Cell has led to speculation that a powerful new gene editing technique is about to be developed.
Gene editing has received widespread media coverage over the past few months. Most of the excitement has centred on a specific gene editing technique, the CRISPR-cas9 system. Research conducted with CRISPR-cas9 on human embryos has been highly controversial, at least partly because some people fear it will lead to gene editing being used to alter the human germline for clinical applications, and will have unpredictable effects on future generations.
For his role in the new movie Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal gained 45 lbs (20 kgs) of muscle in six months. Many praised Gyllenhall for his dedication in undergoing this remarkable physical transformation. Few have questioned whether this achievement was aided by the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Some in the bodybuilding community claim that such massive weight gain would be nearly impossible without the use of steroids. For experienced bodybuilders, it is considered an accomplishment to gain 7-10 pounds of muscle in a year “naturally”. Training in combination with taking human growth hormone (HGH) can add 4.6 pounds of lean muscle mass, in three weeks.
Press Release: The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science
The first study in which the DNA of human embryos was intentionally modified has been published in the journal Protein & Cell, released on Saturday. This research is significant because it may be an important step toward a world where we are free from genetic disease. However allegations that Nature and Science refused to publish this research on ethical grounds are concerning.
The Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics Professor Julian Savulescu has called on Nature and Science to clearly explain their editorial decisions in relation this study.
“If these studies were rejected for ethical reasons we need to know what these reasons are.” Professor Savulescu said.
“There was absolutely no potential for this research to directly result in the birth of a modified human and it is unclear how the study could have harmed or wronged anyone.
Nature should explain why it deems this research ethically problematic, and yet publishes other controversial research, involving viruses, with the potential to directly kill millions of people.” Continue reading
Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu
Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science. In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues. Continue reading
A new drug, Numarol, is currently being trialled which increases the surface area of the brain in children. Numarol causes children to have bigger brains, do better in cognitive tests and generally improves their life prospects. One critic of Numarol recently pointed out it would be very expensive, and only the rich would be able to afford it. Its release would likely create a significant difference in brain size between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups. Numarol would create a world in which biological inequalities are forged from economic ones. The rich would not only have bigger houses, better cars, and better healthcare than the poor, their children would also have bigger brains. Such a world would be abhorrent.
But we already live in this world. Numarol is fictional, but the rich do have children with bigger brains than the poor. Social inequalities have already been written into our biology. Continue reading
Gyngell, Douglas, Savulescu
There are rumours in the scientific community that the first studies involving the genetic modification of a human embryo are about to be published. If true this would be the first case of an experiment in which genes in germ cells (sperm and egg cells) have been intentionally modified. This has caused some concerns in the scientific community due to the fact that these modification are potentially heritable. A commentary in Nature, (written by four leading scientists and one philosopher) published an appeal that we “Don’t edit the human germ line”. Science meanwhile published a commentary which outlines “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification”. The fact that two of the world’s most prestigious journals are publishing commentaries on human genetic modification shows just how powerful gene editing techniques have become. The rapid speed with which these technologies have developed has taken the scientific community, and everyone else, by surprise. Just three years after the DNA cutting nuclease Cas-9 was first used to modify DNA, scientists have been able to make heritable modifications to yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates. It has been claimed that experiments conducted in China, currently under review, have used these same technologies to modify the DNA of human embryos. Continue reading
On Tuesday the 10th of March, Shaun Nichols delivered the 2015 Wellcome & Loebel Lecture in Neuroethics. You can listen to the lecture here.
Nichols presented a range of intriguing empirical data on how our view of the self affects our attitudes. The common view about the self is that it is something that persists through our lives. The self is an essential part of us that remains the same from childhood to adulthood. However some views in philosophy and religion see the self as something much less permanent. Continue reading
The Treasurer of Australia, the Hon Joe Hockey MP, recently received widespread attention with the statement:
It’s kind of remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable that a child has been born who will live to be 150.
Hockey made the claim while discussing some of the problems Australia faces as a result of an ageing population. While his statement was ridiculed by cartoonists and political rivals, he received support from some in the medical community. The Dean of Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Peter Smith, described Mr Hockey’s claim as a “reasonable assumption”. Professor Smith noted that life expectancy for Australians has been climbing dramatically over the past 100 years. A boy born between 2010 and 2012 can expect to live to 80 years and a girl can expect to live to 84 years. This is up from 55 and 59 years respectively in 1910.
However the fact that, on average, people have been living longer and longer does not support the claim that there is someone living today who will reach 150. Continue reading
A case currently before the UK Court of Appeal could have far-reaching implications for mothers who drink during pregnancy. Lawyers for a seven-year-old child with foetal alcohol syndrome caused by her mother’s heavy drinking, argue she should receive compensation from the government-funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority as she has been the victim of a crime. Continue reading