Tag: molecular biology

Bioethics Blogs

Biotech Imagination: Whose Future is this?

PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, recently asked “eight leaders” for their predictions about the next ten years in genetics and genomics. Many responses acknowledge that this task may be impossible; nonetheless, the answers do not waver: “All are optimistic and predict enormous positive impact.”

Is this insider enthusiasm warranted? Should the rest of us be so optimistic?

One thing we can count on is uncertainty – both in the biological systems and with regard to the power of emerging technologies. Contributors Laura F. Landweber of Princeton University and Ian Dunham of European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Wellcome Trust Genome Campus each underscore how much more we have to learn of vast and complex “genome architectures.” They highlight how new findings from more sophisticated whole genome sequencing and data mining are “eroding traditional notions of a gene,” moving us ever further from the “classical reductionist examples from early molecular biology and the idea that molecule X ‘does’ function Y.”

Aside from such concessions of uncertainty, the overall tenor of the commentaries is near-utopian.

None of the contributors mention even widely acknowledged challenges of the genetic future such as data overload, let alone the potential for much more difficult social and legal problems such as new modes of surveillance or lawsuits due to “gene editing” gone wrong.

Meanwhile, examples of the boons of genetic advances range from the practical to the conceptual. Routine genetic sequencing of tumors to provide more precise cancer treatment is mentioned. There is also a prediction that we will soon have precise, personal “miniaturized genomic monitoring” devices capable of reading our bodies for signs of sickness and disease, causing the whole of healthcare to shift from primarily reactive to primarily proactive.

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

LabTV: Curious About the Nervous System

As a child growing up in Croatia, Maja Petkovic dreamed of a future in archeology, medicine, law, and then architecture. But, as she explains in today’s LabTV video, after taking a class in molecular biology, it was love at first sight.

Her passion for biological research landed her in Paris at the Université Denis Diderot, where she pursued a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Now she’s continuing her studies in the United States, working as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute postdoctoral researcher in the NIH-supported lab of Lily and Yuh Nung Jan at the University of California, San Francisco.

Petkovic’s work in the Jan Lab is focused on the basic mechanisms underlying the formation of neural connections and on understanding what happens when those connections go awry. A thorough understanding of neural circuitry has important medical implications, of course, but Petkovic is equally driven by the desire to understand “how stuff works.”

She challenges the frequent misconception that scientists are people who prefer to keep to themselves, and it’s clear that doesn’t describe Petkovic. Indeed, as readers of this blog have surely come to realize, the highly collaborative nature of scientific discovery depends more now than ever on scientists working together in highly effective teams, sharing their expertise, ideas, and findings.

If there’s any one trait that her colleagues do tend to share, Petkovic says, it’s this: “They’re extremely curious, very persistent, and people who just really want to feel like they are doing something that matters.”

Links:

LabTV

Jan Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Science Careers (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Careers Blog (Office of Intramural Training/NIH)

Scientific Careers at NIH

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

What Will 120 Million CRISPR Dollars Buy?

Grandiose visions of CRISPR’s ability to change! revolutionize! transform! the world recently reached a zenith of absurdity in a WIRED cover story titled The Genesis Engine. The article triggered the Twitter hashtag #CRISPRfacts, which for days was devoted to poking fun at the overly optimistic tenor of CRISPR’s press. But the financial world is viewing CRISPR dreams as no laughing matter.

On August 10, Editas Medicine announced that Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Deerfield Management, and other investors have funded CRISPR to the tune of $120 million. In what seems to be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, the tech press declared that money changes everything, or as one headline put it, “CRISPR: Editas’ $120M proves it isn’t a bunch of hype.”

The $120 million investment takes place amid a CRISPR patent fight between two Editas co-founders: Feng Zhang (Broad Institute) and CRISPR’s celebrated innovator Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) who has since left Editas. It’s the largest round of financing yet for CRISPR, though as Xconomy noted, it’s only a fraction of the private biotech financing record set by Moderna Therapeutics earlier in 2015, when it raised $450 million for messenger RNA drug development.

So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Bill Gates and Google, of course, have their hands deep in their own pies of sexy research funding for projects including Gates’ Wi-Fi activated birth control (promised to arrive in 2018) or Calico’s “longevity research.”

One of the striking points of the recent funding announcement is the condition Editas is targeting, a rare form of genetic blindness called leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) that affects roughly 1,000 people in the United States – well under the 200,000-person number that qualifies as an “orphan disease.”

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

Introduction: “Bioculturalism: The Why and How of a Promising Medical Anthropological Future” by Jeffrey G. Snodgrass

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?

“Biocultural” anthropologists do now routinely investigate human health and other topics. However, they are a small minority, both within medical anthropology and anthropology more generally. Though small, they are potentially important. To me, this group’s synthetic approach represents one promising future for anthropology, which would be capable of producing more comprehensive explanations for human function (and dysfunction), and in the process bridging divisions both within our discipline and between anthropology and other natural science disciplines.

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?” Responses to this issue will run in a new series, Bioculturalism, which aims to get anthropologists and closely-related others to talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how this possible anthropological future might unfold, and to what positive ends.

To kick off this series, I respond to this topic myself, which, as you’ll see below, I’ve parsed into five interrelated questions. My response foreshadows themes touched upon by the other contributors. Also today, you’ll hear how Bill Dressler responds to my questions, followed by Emily Mendenhall, Chris Lynn, and Greg Downey every other Monday.

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

Epigenetics and Society: Potential, Expectations and Criticisms – A Special Issue of New Genetics and Society by Francis Mckay

Hi all, Part 1 of this month’s In the Journals Roundup has already been posted here. Part 2 will be coming soon. In addition, you can find below a special issue of New Genetics and Society on the topic of “Epigenetics and Society: Potential, Expectations and Criticisms”.

Epigenetics for the social sciences: justice, embodiment, and inheritance in the postgenomic age
Maurizio Meloni

In this paper, I firstly situate the current rise of interest in epigenetics in the broader history of attempts to go “beyond the gene” in twentieth-century biology. In the second part, after a summary of the main differences between epigenetic and genetic mutations, I consider what kind of implications the sui generis features of epigenetic mutations may have for the social sciences. I focus in particular on two sites of investigation: (a) the blurring of the boundaries between natural and social inequalities in theories of justice and their possible implications for public policy and public health and (b) a deepening of the notion that the constitution of the body is deeply dependent on its material and socially shaped surroundings (“embodied constructivism”). In conclusion, I advance some cautionary reflections on some of the (known and unprecedented) problems that the circulation of epigenetics in wider society may present.

How the genome got a life span
Martine Lappé & Hannah Landecker

In the space of little more than a decade, ideas of the human genome have shifted significantly, with the emergence of the notion that the genome of an individual changes with development, age, disease, environmental inputs, and time.

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

Research Ethics Roundup: Reconsidering the Placebo Effect, the Disclosure of Clinical Trial Data, and More

In this week’s Research Ethics Roundup, we explore how shifting conceptions of research—from the growing demand for the sharing of clinical trial data to a renewed emphasis on statistical power in animal research—are challenging current thinking. Read on and share your thoughts on these pieces and other research ethics and oversight news in the comments.

Is the Placebo Effect in Some People’s Genes?:  A recent study published in Trends in Molecular Biology found that an individual’s response to a placebo may be affected by his or her genetics. This article from Reuters provides an overview of the research, as well as the potential implications of this finding for clinical research.

NIH Research: Think Globally: Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, advocate for US investment in research aimed at addressing global health issues in this editorial from Science.

UK Funders Demand Strong Statistics for Animal Studies: Concerns about studies that lack statistical power have resulted in changes to the guidelines put forward by United Kingdom bodies responsible for distributing funding for research involving animals. In this article for Nature, Daniel Cressey provides background on the change, including the role of the 3Rs.

US Societies Push Back Against NIH Reproducibility Guidelines: In November, the National Institutes of Health developed guidelines intended to “improve the reproducibility of preclinical research.” However, some groups are concerned that the guidelines, which have been adopted by many journals, need further refinement.

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

Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

On Thursday, March 19, 2015 Science published (on-line) a Policy Forum entitled  A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification.  The piece had 18 authors, including David Baltimore, Paul Berg, Alta Charo, George Church, George Daley, Jennifer Doudna, Ed Penhoet, Keith Yamamoto, and (as, with Alta, one of only two non-scientists and definitely as one of the lesser lights) me. The Policy Forum recommended that steps be taken to “strongly discourage…any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.”

A bit more than forty years earlier, on Monday morning, February 27, 1975, David Baltimore opened the famous Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA. That conference had been called after a letter in Science from the leaders in the field called for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research until important safety issues could be worked out. The three and a half days of the Asilomar meeting produced safety guidelines which led the group to lift their (totally informal and non-binding) moratorium – and ultimately led the NIH Recombinant Activities Committee; to federal (and foreign) biosafety regulations; in some tellings the wildly successful application of recombinant DNA techniques to research and medicine; and, undoubtedly, the most famous story in modern scientific self-regulation. (An excellent, non-speculative, memoir of the Asilomar meeting by George Frederickson, head of the Institute of Medicine at the time of Asilomar and director of NIH a few months later, can be found here.)

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

Is progress being made towards the creation of artificial life?

¿Se avanza hacia la creación de vida artificial?

Recent press reports have highlighted what appears to be a major advance towards the creation of artificial life, when they reported the total synthesis of the first chromosome of an organism, a yeast, that is biologically more similar to humans than to bacteria[1]. The study was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins and New York universities in the United States, in what was an interesting innovation in the approach to this type of research. The new chromosome has substantial differences with respect to the original model. These modifications, which result in it being roughly 14% shorter, were introduced in order to make it more stable and flexible from a genetic point of view. According to the authors, this flexibility will enable it to be modified in vivo to change a specific property aimed at, for example, the production of antibiotics or biofuels. Although the synthetic chromosome has several differences with respect to the original, the yeasts that contain it are biologically indistinguishable from natural yeasts.

This is one further step in the field of Synthetic Biology, which already had huge media coverage in 2010, with the synthesis of the first whole genome[2]. At that time it was Craig Venter’s group who made a copy of a bacterial chromosome that was shown to be perfectly functional, as in the case of the yeast. Interestingly, the size of the bacterial molecule was four times larger than the one synthesised now and essentially identical to the original, unlike the yeast chromosome, which is significantly different.

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

“Berlin Patient,” First and Only Person Cured of HIV, Speaks Out

Timothy Ray Brown, long known only as the “Berlin Patient” had HIV for 12 years before he became the first person in the world to be cured of the infection following a stem cell transplant in 2007. He recalls his many years of illness, a series of difficult decisions, and his long road to recovery in the first-person account, “I Am the Berlin Patient: A Personal Reflection,” published in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is part of a special issue on HIV Cure Research and is available free on the AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses website.

Brown’s Commentary describes the bold experiment of using a stem cell donor who was naturally resistant to HIV infection to treat the acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosed 10 years after he became HIV-positive. The stem cell donor had a specific genetic mutation called CCR5 Delta 32 that can protect a person against HIV infection. The virus is not able to enter its target, the CD4 cells. After the stem cell transplant, Brown was able to stop all antiretroviral treatment and the HIV has not returned.

“This is the first time that we get to read this important story written by the man who lived it,” says Thomas Hope, PhD, Editor-in-Chief of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses and Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL. “It is a unique opportunity to share in the human side of this transformative experience.”

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

Who’s Afraid of GMO?

The answer, it seems, is quite a number of people. The
question that we really need to address is why. Are these concerns rational,
are they science based, should they provide the basis for public policy? People
have been using selective breeding and hybridization techniques for thousands
of years to alter the genetic makeup of both plant and animal agricultural
products. Neil Tyson Degrasse 
made the point very clearly and effectively that almost
nothing we grow agriculturally has been unchanged from the plants and animals
living naturally. They have all been altered by the intentional action of human
beings. Selective breeding, of course, has significant differences from what is
currently characterized by the term genetic modification which is done using
the techniques of molecular biology to insert genetic material. But they do
establish the principle that most people are happy to eat food products which
have been genetically altered by people. That sweet red apple you had for lunch
or the fattened cattle which produced your juicy hamburger do not exist in
nature.

The techniques of genetic engineering which can be used to
insert genetic material into the genome of a cell permitted the alteration of
crops that resist pests requiring less use of pesticides. They allow selective
herbicide resistance allowing the use of minimally toxic or nontoxic  herbicides as well as no till farming which
diminishes erosion and reduces use of fossil fuels. They have also been able to
use these techniques to add essential nutrients to address widespread dietary
deficiencies. An example of this is the development of golden rice, the
genetic
modification of rice
to produce vitamin A. These

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.