Tag: molecular biology

Bioethics Blogs

Who is Afraid of CRISPR Art? by Eben Kirksey

A crowd-sourced Indiegogo funding campaign that raised over $45,000 for do-it-yourself gene editing kits in December, asks: “If you had access to modern synthetic biology tools, what would you create?”  This campaign, which aims to democratize science “so everyone has access,” was launched by Josiah Zayner, who earned a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from the University of Chicago.  For $130 Zayner offers a DIY CRISPR kit that “includes everything you need to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home including Cas9, gRNA and a Donor DNA template.”  This Indiegogo campaign has a special Note to BioHackers: “Each kit comes with all sequence and cloning detail so you can perform your own custom genome engineering.”

Genetically modified organisms, created with CRISPR or other technologies, have the potential to run wild and cause harm to human health and ecological communities.  Zayner’s Indiegogo campaign attracted supporters from around the world, including many nations where there are no clear laws about containment for organisms that have been “biohacked.”  The Federal Bureau of Investigation has targeted hacking communities with the Bioterrorism Protection Team to ferret out possible malicious uses of emergent technologies.  Biohacking can pose significant risks, according to Charis Thompson, Professor of Sociology at University College London and at UC Berkeley.  But security concerns should not blind us to the creative potentials of tools like CRISPR, she says.  During Thompson’s recent address to the Human Gene Editing Summit in Washington she asked: “Are the biosecurity risks exaggerated for citizen use of these technologies? What are the creative and democratic potentials of these techniques?”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

MSU Discovers a New Kind of Stem Cell

March 4, 2016

(Eurekalert) – Scientists at Michigan State University have discovered a new kind of stem cell, one that could lead to advances in regenerative medicine as well as offer new ways to study birth defects and other reproductive problems. In the current issue of the journal Stem Cell Reports, Tony Parenti, lead author and MSU cell and molecular biology graduate student, unearthed the new cells – induced XEN cells, or iXEN – in a cellular trash pile, of sorts.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald’s “Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social and Neurosciences” by Jörg Niewöhner

Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social and Neurosciences

by Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald

Palgrave (Pivot series), 2015, 160 pages

The first thing you notice when picking up a copy of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social and Neurosciences is the almost waxy feel of the cover. I do not have another volume from Palgrave’s Pivot series to hand as I write, so I do not know whether this is particular to this book or not. In any case, as an environmental scientist and anthropologist, the haptics of “rethinking interdisciplinarity” immediately take me back to field notebooks: handy size so it fits into pockets, sturdy cover so you can stuff it into a backpack or box of equipment, and, most importantly of all, water-repellent so you may take notes out in the rain.

And a field notebook is what geographer Felicity Callard and sociologist Des Fitzgerald have written in at least two senses of the word. First, it is a report back from the field. The two have spent many years in the ‘interdisciplinary’ field of social cognitive neuroscience and they share with us their impressions. Second, it is a field notebook that you may take to your own interdisciplinary field, so in moments when you have become thoroughly disoriented, disheartened and generally fed up with academic knowledge production, you may take some solace from this little helper. While the book does contain some ready-to-use bullets for the hurried reader in the form of short notes and queries sections, my distinct impression is that solace will not be given to those trying to use the book like a conversion table from imperial to metric.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: What Can Hibernation Tell Us About Human Health?

Credit: Karen Laubenstein (Big Game Alaska)/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When bears, bats, and other animals prepare to hibernate, they pack on fat at an impressive pace to almost double their weight. As they drift off into their winter slumber, their heart rates, breathing, and metabolism slow dramatically. Hibernating mammals can survive in this state of torpor for a period of weeks or even months without eating or drinking anything at all!

It’s a fascinating and still rather mysterious process—and one that William Israelsen of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, thinks may yield intriguing insights with implications for human health. A recipient of a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Israelsen plans to use a little-known mouse species to study hibernation in the laboratory at a level of detail that’s not possible in the wild. He especially wants to learn how hibernating animals shift their metabolic gears over the course of the year, and what those findings might reveal about human obesity, cancer, and other health conditions.

Hibernation hasn’t always been at the forefront of Israelsen’s mind. As a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, the Utah native was focused on cancer, specifically at understanding how cancer cells ramp up their metabolism to replicate at a rapid pace. But during a discussion with a lab mate, a light bulb went off: cancer involves powering up of cellular metabolism, while hibernation involves powering it down. So, it occurred to the pair that if they could figure out the mechanism of metabolic control in hibernating animals, it might illuminate understanding of how metabolic control runs amok in cancer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Genetic Facts, Genetic Reality, Genetic Imaginaries

Review of Genes and the Bioimaginary: Science, Spectacle, Culture, by Deborah Lynn Steinberg.  Ashgate, 2014. 191 pp. [Ashgate; Amazon]

Decades before the advent of molecular biology, genes occupied a central role in “the bioimaginary.” From the early 1900s on, although they could not fully define it, biologists, eugenicists, physicians alike increasingly placed the gene at the center of the enterprise to explain bodies and behaviors. After the elucidation of the double helix, researchers conceived the project of explicating the structure and function of genes and DNA as the grail of modern science (especially handy as nuclear physics proved so problematic an exercise). Public and private institutions devoted to genes proliferated, such that one study in 2013 estimated the genetics and genomic industry had a trillion-dollar impact on the U.S. economy.

To challenge the collective assumptions, values, and narratives of those—from academics to entrepreneurs—who labor in that increasingly ubiquitous and powerful industry, is to undertake a huge task. Indeed, the genetic realm of the bioimaginary has expanded so far beyond science that it has infiltrated the social sciences, humanities, and arts, not to mention pop culture—everyone from Nigerian Christian gospel singer T# to highbrow dance schools deploy the DNA trope even when its relevance is unclear.

In Genes and the Bioimaginary, Deborah Lynn Steinberg, professor of Gender, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Warwick, UK, has carried out a masterful, far-ranging analysis of how the gene has come to dominate Western discourses of identity, justice, psychology, and medicine, and the ways in which projections about how genes shape our agency, wellbeing, and social worth have seduced us into placing more belief into the power of genetic science than is warranted and have thus granted it a good deal of sway in our lives.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Gene gibbering

On 1 December the statesmen and -women of molecular biology will meet in Washington, DC, for a three-day international summit on human gene editing, sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK’s Royal Society. The meeting coincides with the publication of an open call for evidence to inform our own current genome editing project.

The Washington meeting is the latest, and perhaps the grandest, of a series of such meetings that have taken place since CRISPR-based genome editing systems seemingly re-wrote the future of life science research in just a few years, since their appearance in 2012. Their rapid uptake and diffusion has been accompanied by earnest and inreasingly anxious discussions about how we should think about this emerging technology, and the proper mode and limits of governance. From Manchester to Strasbourg, Cairo, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Washington, groups of scientists and fellow travellers have been recombining to elaborate an anticipatory political epistemology of genome editing. (I have written about some of these initiatives in previous posts on this blog.) The character of these meetings has evolved uncertainly to include researchers from outside the natural sciences, policy makers, industry and civil society actors. That knowledgeable and interested people are talking about the broader implications and governance of genome editing is important, but there are two things that I think should be borne in mind.

The first is that genome editing is both a tool for basic research and a technology that assembles knowledges, practices, products and applications.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Protecting Kids: Developing a Vaccine for Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Vaccines are one of biomedicine’s most powerful and successful tools for protecting against infectious diseases. While we currently have safe and effective vaccines to prevent measles, mumps, and a great many other common childhood diseases, we still lack a vaccine to guard against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—a leading cause of pneumonia among infants and young children.

Each year, more than 2 million U.S. children under the age of 5 require medical care for pneumonia and other potentially life-threatening lower respiratory infections caused by RSV [1,2]. Worldwide, the situation is even worse, with more than 30 million infections estimated to occur annually, most among kids in developing countries, where as many as 200,000 deaths may result [3]. So, I’m pleased to report some significant progress in biomedical research’s long battle against RSV: encouraging early results from a clinical trial of an experimental vaccine specifically designed to outwit the virus.

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine [4], an NIH-supported team administered nose drops containing either the new experimental RSV vaccine or a placebo to 60 volunteers, 45 of whom were children under the age of 5. The researchers found that children who received the new vaccine mounted a stronger immune response against RSV than seen in previous tests of another experimental vaccine. What’s more, the study provided some very preliminary evidence that the new vaccine may confer protection against RSV in real-world settings during the fall and winter—the prime time for RSV infection in the United States.

The new vaccine, which was created through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and MedImmune, Gaithersburg, MD, consists of a live, weakened virus.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

On eternal life: why an anti-ageing pill might sour the pleasures of existence

Would finding the fountain of youth really be such a great thing? Nicola Sapiens De Mitri/Flickr, CC BY

Centuries ago, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth, a spring that restores youth to whoever drinks from, or bathes in it. Today, some scientists are keeping the dream alive.

These thinkers believe genetic engineering, or the discovery of anti-ageing drugs, could extend human life far beyond its natural course.

Indeed, Australian geneticist David Sinclair believes such a pill could be as close as ten years away. Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey thinks there is no reason humans cannot live for at least 1,000 years.

It’s certainly an enticing prospect, which has investors jumping on board. In 2013, Google started Calico, short for the California Life Company. Employing scientists from the fields of medicine, genetics, drug development and molecular biology, Calico’s aim is to “devise interventions that slow ageing and counteract age-related diseases”.

Those who fear death and want to live as long as possible would welcome this kind of research. But many philosophers and ethicists are sceptical about the implications of longer lifespans, both for the individual and society. Their doubts recall the old saying: be careful what you wish for.

Individual discontents

For some, the idea of living longer is a no-brainer. According to bioethicist John Harris, the commitment to extending life indefinitely is justified by the same reasoning that commits us to saving lives. He believes scientists have a moral obligation to do so.

But Leon Kass, a former US presidential advisor on bioethics, takes the concept of eternal life deeper than simply “life is good and death is bad”.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Summer Roundup: Bioculturalism by Deanna Day

We continue our set of summer roundups by focusing our attention on a series of interviews conducted by Jeffrey G. Snodgrass. Snodgrass spoke with William Dressler, Emily Mendenhall, Christopher Lynn, and Greg Downey on the subject of bioculturalism, aiming to get anthropologists and closely-related others talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how to synergize biological and social scientific approaches to human health and well-being, and to what positive ends.

 

Introduction: “Bioculturalism: The Why and How of a Promising Medical Anthropological Future”

“I’m perplexed by cultural anthropology’s antagonism toward biology, with culture and biology more typically treated as providing alternate and competing, rather than complementary and synergistic, explanations for human functioning. This is particularly strange to me—a practicing cultural anthropologist with a background in molecular biology—when even medical anthropologists fail to account for the role biology plays in shaping human health. Wouldn’t such a consideration enrich our comprehension of the interplay between sociocultural milieus and human bodies?… To sketch a blueprint for such a future, I have invited a group of self-professed ‘biocultural anthropologists’ to address the question, ‘How might cultural anthropology gain by taking biology more seriously?’” —Jeffrey G. Snodgrass

 

Interview: William Dressler

“Anthropological analyses are full of intriguing theoretical and ethnographic models proposing processes that operate at many levels, ranging from the molecular to the symbolic. Very often I find myself reading such analyses, only to get to the end thinking: “and……?” I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the sense of what the implications of those processes might be for health or biological outcomes.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Not Your Grandpa’s Biotechnology

Carlos Mariscal and Angel Petropanagos argue that we need to pay more attention to the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR, the new gene editing technology.

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This week, researchers met in Washington D.C. to discuss scientific advancements in gene editing technologies. On the agenda was a new gene editing system called CRISPR. CRISPR is like a pair of scissors for cutting genes. By using various proteins, it can locate, insert, delete, edit, silence, or express any specific gene.

Whereas previous gene editing techniques were laborious, inefficient, and imprecise, The CRISPR system is easy, fast, precise, accurate, and relatively cheap. It makes gene editing more accessible than ever before.

CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic material in any organism at any stage of development. It could be used on somatic cells to alter the genes in an individual organism and on germ (reproductive) cells to alter the genetic material of future generations.

Public attention fell on CRISPR earlier this year when Chinese researchers announced they had used this technology on (non-viable) human embryos. This was the first human germline application of CRISPR. Reactions have been mixed.

Some people see CRISPR as a scientific breakthrough and as a potential cure for various human diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS, and sickle cell anemia.

Others worry that using CRISPR on humans leads us down the path to eugenics. By making changes to the germline, scientists could control what genetic material was passed on to future generations, a practice which some imagine could lead to racist, classist, or merely unwise modifications of future human generations.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.