Tag: viruses

Bioethics News

American CRISPR Experiments and the Future of Regulation

By Michael S. Dauber, MA, GBI Visiting Scholar

According to a report in The MIT Technology Review, researchers in a lab based in Portland, Oregon have successfully created genetically modified human embryos for the first time in U.S. history, using a technique called CRISPR. The project, directed by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, was published in Nature, and consisted of modifying the genes of human embryos to prevent a severe, genetically inherited heart condition. The embryos were destroyed several days after the experiments.

CRISPR stands for “clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats.” It is a genetic editing technique that allows scientists to cut out pieces of DNA and replace them with other pieces. CRISPR originated as a naturally occurring cellular defense system in certain bacterial that allows a cell to defend itself from foreign genetic material injected into cells by viruses. RNA strands that match the problematic genes bind with the piece of DNA to be removed, and enzymes work to remove the defective material. When CRISPR is used to edit the human genome, scientists apply CRISPR RNA strands and the corresponding enzymes that match the genes they wish to edit in order to extract the problematic genes.

Mitalipov is not the first scientist to use CRISPR to edit the human genome. Scientists in China have been using the technique in research using human embryos dating back to 2015. One notable study consisted of attempts to make cells resistant to HIV. Another controversial study involved the injection of CRISPR-modified cells into a patient with advanced lung 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 News

CRISPR diagnoisis tool. A new biomedical breakthrough from genome editing to disease diagnosis

CRISPR techniques are gaining traction in another realm of medical technology. CRISPR diagnosis tool

It has recently been announced that the CRISPR tool, used up to now in the field of genome editing, can be used in another field, namely in diagnosis, combining it with the enzyme Cas13a instead of with Cas9 (See HERE). By combining CRISPR with the new enzyme, discovered by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, investigators can quickly and cheaply detect several specific RNA sequences at the same time, including the RNA of some viruses, such as Zika. This new use does not fall within the field of genome editing, so it does not share its bioethical issues, but it is a major biomedical breakthrough.

La entrada CRISPR diagnoisis tool. A new biomedical breakthrough from genome editing to disease diagnosis aparece primero en Bioethics Observatory.

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

DNA-Encoded Movie Points Way to ‘Molecular Recorder’

Credit: Seth Shipman, Harvard Medical School, Boston

There’s a reason why our cells store all of their genetic information as DNA. This remarkable molecule is unsurpassed for storing lots of data in an exceedingly small space. In fact, some have speculated that, if encoded in DNA, all of the data ever generated by humans could fit in a room about the size of a two-car garage and, if that room happens to be climate controlled, the data would remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years! [1]

Scientists have already explored whether synthetic DNA molecules on a chip might prove useful for archiving vast amounts of digital information. Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers is taking DNA’s information storage capabilities in another intriguing direction. They’ve devised their own code to record information not on a DNA chip, but in the DNA of living cells. Already, the team has used bacterial cells to store the data needed to outline the shape of a human hand, as well the data necessary to reproduce five frames from a famous vintage film of a horse galloping (see above).

But the researchers’ ultimate goal isn’t to make drawings or movies. They envision one day using DNA as a type of “molecular recorder” that will continuously monitor events taking place within a cell, providing potentially unprecedented looks at how cells function in both health and disease.

The Harvard Medical School team, led by Seth Shipman and George Church, built their molecular recorder using the CRISPR/Cas complex, much touted on this blog as a gene-editing tool.

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

How Flu Changes within the Human Body May Hint at Future Global Trends

June 27, 2017

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Evolution is usually very slow, a process of change that takes thousands or millions of years to see.

But for influenza, evolution is fast – and deadly. Flu viruses change rapidly to escape the body’s defenses. Every few years, new variants of flu emerge and cause epidemics around the world.

Controlling the spread of flu means dealing with this ongoing evolution. Each year, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) must make their best guess about how the virus will change in order to choose which flu strains to include in the annual vaccine.

This work is difficult and uncertain, and mistakes have real consequences. Worldwide, flu infects several million people each year and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths. In years when predictions miss the mark and the flu shot is very different from circulating strains, more people are vulnerable to infection.

In the past several years, advances in genome sequencing have begun to shed light on the beginnings of viral evolution, deep within individual infections. We wondered whether, for flu, this information might give us an early glimpse of future global evolutionary trends.

What could a single person’s flu infection tell us about how the virus changes across the world? As it turns out, a surprising amount.

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The Conversation

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

The Crisis of Our Era: Can we find a way to talk about it?

So much of the fate of our planet, the human race, and all of God’s creatures depends on humans having an objective, causal understanding of the pressing problems we face and then, on that basis, developing some reasonably effective practical means by which those threats can be ameliorated—it’s called, using human intelligence and being connected to reality, at least reality with a small “r”, as in empirical reality. Just think of the causes of threats such as climate change, transmittable diseases and drug resistant viruses, gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, unemployment, poverty, lack of healthcare coverage, and on and on. Without reasonably sound knowledge of the causes of these threat humans are rendered helpless and vulnerable. And even with sound knowledge, without a practical, yes political, means, in the form of sound public policy, of collective action, to ameliorate them, we are cannot take meaningful action, and are still rendered helpless and vulnerable. Currently, in the United States there is vast disagreement not only over how best to formulate policy solutions to some our most pressing problems, there is often no agreement over how to understand the problem or even whether or not a problem exists. Climate change and gun control are two prominent examples. 

The fact that climate change is real and greatly accelerated by human activity is a fact about which there is clear scientific evidence. Practically all scientific societies, science academies, and governmental and intergovernmental agencies, are in complete agreement, which means the evidence for this empirical claim being true is about as compelling as anything we know about the natural phenomena.

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

The Crisis of Our Era: Can we find a way to talk about it?

So much of the fate of our planet, the human race, and all of God’s creatures depends on humans having an objective, causal understanding of the pressing problems we face and then, on that basis, developing some reasonably effective practical means by which those threats can be ameliorated—it’s called, using human intelligence and being connected to reality, at least reality with a small “r”, as in empirical reality. Just think of the causes of threats such as climate change, transmittable diseases and drug resistant viruses, gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, unemployment, poverty, lack of healthcare coverage, and on and on. Without reasonably sound knowledge of the causes of these threat humans are rendered helpless and vulnerable. And even with sound knowledge, without a practical, yes political, means, in the form of sound public policy, of collective action, to ameliorate them, we are cannot take meaningful action, and are still rendered helpless and vulnerable. Currently, in the United States there is vast disagreement not only over how best to formulate policy solutions to some our most pressing problems, there is often no agreement over how to understand the problem or even whether or not a problem exists. Climate change and gun control are two prominent examples. 

The fact that climate change is real and greatly accelerated by human activity is a fact about which there is clear scientific evidence. Practically all scientific societies, science academies, and governmental and intergovernmental agencies, are in complete agreement, which means the evidence for this empirical claim being true is about as compelling as anything we know about the natural phenomena.

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

Regenerative Medicine: Making Blood Stem Cells in the Lab

Caption: Arrow in first panel points to an endothelial cell induced to become hematopoietic stem cell (HSC). Second and third panels show the expansion of HSCs over time.
Credit: Raphael Lis, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY

Bone marrow transplants offer a way to cure leukemia, sickle cell disease, and a variety of other life-threatening blood disorders.There are two major problems, however: One is many patients don’t have a well-matched donor to provide the marrow needed to reconstitute their blood with healthy cells. Another is even with a well-matched donor, rejection or graft versus host disease can occur, and lifelong immunosuppression may be needed.

A much more powerful option would be to develop a means for every patient to serve as their own bone marrow donor. To address this challenge, researchers have been trying to develop reliable, lab-based methods for making the vital, blood-producing component of bone marrow: hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs).

Two new studies by NIH-funded research teams bring us closer to achieving this feat. In the first study, researchers developed a biochemical “recipe” to produce HSC-like cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which were derived from mature skin cells. In the second, researchers employed another approach to convert mature mouse endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, directly into self-renewing HSCs. When these HSCs were transplanted into mice, they fully reconstituted the animals’ blood systems with healthy red and white blood cells.

As reported in Nature, both teams took advantage of earlier evidence showing that HSCs are formed during embryonic development from budding endothelial cells in the aorta.

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: Preparing for Future Pandemics

Jonathan Abraham / Credit: ChieYu Lin

Growing up in Queens, NY, Jonathan Abraham developed a love for books and an interest in infectious diseases. One day Abraham got his hands on a copy of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, a 1990s bestseller warning of future global pandemics, and he sensed his life’s calling. He would help people around the world survive deadly viral outbreaks, particularly from Ebola, Marburg, and other really bad bugs that cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers.

Abraham, now a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, continues to chase that dream. With support from an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award, Abraham has set out to help design the next generation of treatments to enable more people to survive future outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever. His research strategy: find antibodies in the blood of known survivors that helped them overcome their infections. With further study, he hopes to develop purified forms of the antibodies as potentially life-saving treatments for people whose own immune systems may not make them in time. This therapeutic strategy is called passive immunity.

Already, Abraham has begun collecting blood samples from survivors of Ebola, Marburg, and other hemorrhagic fevers. The next step—and it can be a long and tedious one—is to isolate the B immune cells that produce the antibodies responsible for fighting each of the viruses. When he finds one, Abraham will then identify and sequence the specific immunoglobulin genes encoding those antibodies in the appropriate B cell.

Having those DNA sequences in hand, Abraham can make large quantities of the antibodies, allowing him to study their ability to neutralize the viruses in lab dishes and infected animals.

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

Fighting Parasitic Infections: Promise in Cyclic Peptides

Caption: Cyclic peptide (middle) binds to iPGM (blue).
Credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH

When you think of the causes of infectious diseases, what first comes to mind are probably viruses and bacteria. But parasites are another important source of devastating infection, especially in the developing world. Now, NIH researchers and their collaborators have discovered a new kind of treatment that holds promise for fighting parasitic roundworms. A bonus of this result is that this same treatment might work also for certain deadly kinds of bacteria.

The researchers identified the potential new  therapeutic after testing more than a trillion small protein fragments, called cyclic peptides, to find one that could disable a vital enzyme in the disease-causing organisms, but leave similar enzymes in humans unscathed. Not only does this discovery raise hope for better treatments for many parasitic and bacterial diseases, it highlights the value of screening peptides in the search for ways to treat conditions that do not respond well—or have stopped responding—to more traditional chemical drug compounds.

Humans, parasites, and bacteria depend on the same cellular pathway to break down glucose for energy. This life-sustaining metabolic pathway includes essentially all of the same enzymes with one notable exception: cofactor-independent phosphoglycerate mutase (iPGM). This enzyme is found in parasites and bacteria, but not in people. Yes, we humans have an enzyme that does that same job—but it does so in a different way and is assembled from an entirely different sequence of amino acid building blocks.

Given this very exploitable difference, iPGM jumped several years ago to the top of the list as a drug target that would kill disease-causing parasites without harming people.

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

The Dangers and Challenges of Weaponizable Neuroscience: A Call for Renewed Engagement

Photo Source: This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 021015-N-6996M-109 (http://bit.ly/2oQFUdh)

BY DR. DIANE DIEULIIS and DR. JAMES GIORDANO

The chemical weapon attack in Syria that has killed at least 70 people employed the nerve gas sarin. And, it is believed that it was the nerve agent VX that was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in a public airport. These uses of nerve agents violate the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). While the Syrian government signed the CWC in 2013, it was never ratified, and of course, signatory agreement does not guarantee compliance. Nor do such treaties among nation states necessarily provide any security against the development and use of biological and chemical weapons by non-state actors. These events are disturbing and, we believe, portend a larger, and ever growing issue of how such neurological agents could be used, altered and/or developed anew as weapons.

International advances in brain science over the past decade are enabling ever greater capabilities to control neurological processes of thought, emotion and behavior. So, while the CWC and Biological Toxin and Weapons Convention (BTWC) prohibit development of drugs, microbes and toxins that can be made into weapons, these prohibitions are not absolute – many of these substances can be – and are – used in basic neuroscience research, or in research programs that seek to develop defenses against biochemical weapons. What’s more, new tools and methods with which to edit genes, such as CRISPR/Cas9, can make it easier to modify bacteria, viruses or certain toxins to be weaponized.

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.