Saturday, 25 April 2015

Forget the "Editing" Hype: Human Genome Action Painting Attempted in China

Recently, there's been a lot of hype around what's been referred to as genome editing. What it's all about is that there's a new bioetechnological strategy for effecting genetic modification in organisms, called CRISPR/Cas9, that has shown promise in facilitating more precise and specific changes of a genome more effectively than before. This is an important advance for laboratory biology research, as the effecting of specific genetic changes in the genome of organisms and study of how these "behave" in response to various stimuli, in different environments, and reproductively over generations is a basic way of advancing knowledge of basic biological mechanisms. However, as usual, there has also been some lack of temperance among those who immediately want to move the new promising lab-tool into practical "in vivo" applications, sparking calls for a global moratorium on practical application, akin to that famously adopted in 1974 at the Asilomar Conference to apply to the then novel recombinant DNA technology. In addition, there has been especially forceful calls to abstain from "editing" a human genetic germ line. The reasoning is an apparently sound precautionary argument to the effect that before practical applications are attempted, sufficient understanding of the technology, its potentials and limits, possible consequences and suitable security protocols, need to be attained and put into place.

At the same time, when new technologies are hyped like this, my bioethics alarm bells start ringing loudly for a number of reasons. We know from a long series of hyped new technologies that, while they may indeed over time prove to be advances compared to what has been previously available (though by far not always), the promises of new "clean", "precise" tool that will effect all that we aim for without any side-effects or mistakes is usually as credible as the promises of precision warfare foreboding the 2003 Iraq invasion – or worse. What one mustn't forget is that there are almost always substantial vested interests around, that have high stakes in having the tech they personally hold patents for, or stock in start-up companies that do, or have stakes in institutes or universities that do, and so on, appear in much better light that there is actual evidence to support. And, in this respect, CRISPR-Cas9 is no different. This is a basic reason to primarily interpret any positive claim about the technology outside of the bona fide peer reviewed scientific literature as part of a marketing campaign aimed at upping the the price of licensing fees, credit rating of the patent holder, attraction for external financial investors, and (if it is a start-up company) stock price pending a coming introduction into a stock exchange or a emission of new shares. Other agents with similar vested interests include those who have already invested in the product somehow, or those who want to peddle quack junk to people under the guise of novel science, much in the spirit the infamous stem cell clinics that continue to jack money out of the hands of conned, often desperate, people.

So, for me, it was no surprise when the reality of the "editing" showed its true face when a group of Chinese researcher recently applied it to human in vitro embryos (modified, so that they could never have resulted in a living human baby, but also never implanted to effect a pregnancy). What we learn from this study is that if there's any honesty among gene modification scientists, the "editing" misnomer should be dropped immediately:
The team injected 86 embryos and then waited 48 hours, enough time for the CRISPR/Cas9 system and the molecules that replace the missing DNA to act — and for the embryos to grow to about eight cells each. Of the 71 embryos that survived, 54 were genetically tested. This revealed that just 28 were successfully spliced, and that only a fraction of those contained the replacement genetic material. “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100%,” Huang says. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.”
His team also found a surprising number of ‘off-target’ mutations assumed to be introduced by the CRISPR/Cas9 complex acting on other parts of the genome.
What we seem to be looking at in the reality outside of the hype is some sort of human genome action painting, where now and then a drop of the right colour lands in the right place, several other drops land where we absolutely do not want them to, but most of the result is just general heap of pint randomly applied by these the Jackson Pollocks of human genetics.

Moratorium? No shit?!!