Two more biomedical editorials about the cutting edge

1)      The new issue of Nature Biotechnology carries an erratic editorial complaining that “alarmist” responses to the recent announcement that a project to synthesize an entire human genome may be launched “missed the point.”  The editors say that worries about “synthetic life and secret meetings” missed the point.  The lesser goals of the project—more “nearfetched,” if you will—call for synthesizing long, sub-genomic stretches of DNA that would, if successful, be tour de forces themselves and open a number of lines of important scientific inquiry.  They list several, most of which appear ethical, with the possible exception of the potential to alter human stem cells with synthetic DNA.  If the stem cells in question are somatic stem cells, I’d see no fundamental new ethical problem.  If, however, the stem cells would be embryonic stem cells, more mature embryos, or even iPSCs, which could differentiate into germ cells in some settings, then I would say those experiments should not be done.

Moreover, the synthesis of a full Mycoplasma genome has been underproductive, stimulating less new research than it ought to have by now, they claim.

The editorial is erratic because at the end they write that although engendering live human offspring bearing synthetic genomes “is not the plan,” the editors nonetheless would be a “giant step” toward “the future that many people fear,” and that proposed “ultrasafe” approaches will do nothing to prevent the most dystopian attempts.

In the end, then, the Nature Biotechnology editors, in their density, make precisely the point that they claim the “alarmists” to have missed.  Your humble alarmist correspondent repeats:  synthesis of a full human genome should never be attempted, and discussions of them, which should be held broadly in society as the editors themselves assert, must not be conducted in small groups behind closed doors under confidentiality agreements in sessions that look for all the world like their major goal is to protect potential intellectual property (i.e., patents).

2)      JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) reports that the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have determined that organisms modified by so-called “gene drive” are not ready for release into the wild, and study of them must remain limited to closely controlled experiments, at least for now.  Briefly (and probably too simply), “gene drive” is a technique by which contemporary gene editing techniques would be used in an intact organism in a way that would give the altered gene an advantage in the ensuing population, beyond the limits of natural genetics.  Such an approach has been suggested for creating mosquitos incapable of transmitting malaria, or Zika virus, for example.  Alter a few, set them loose, and before long almost all mosquitoes would have the change.  It would only work for organisms with short reproductive cycles, like mosquitoes.  (Gerbils, anyone?) 

This may sound cool, but the worry is unintended consequences, such as the altered mosquitoes picking up some other trait that makes them susceptible to a disease that could kill them off in large numbers, creating a chain effect in the ecosystem, or transmission of a gene-driven change from mosquitoes to other organisms.

Good for the National Academies on this one.

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