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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Après nous le déluge


You can always blame the Chinese.

See also A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification (Baltimore et al.) and Germ line editing and human evolution.
Science: Embryo engineering alarm

... In 1975, the Asilomar conference center hosted a meeting where molecular biologists, physicians, and lawyers crafted guidelines for research that altered the DNA of living organisms. Now, scientists are calling for another Asilomar—this time to discuss the possibility of genetically engineered human beings.

... Rumors are rife, presumably from anonymous peer reviewers, that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos and have submitted papers on their results. They have apparently not tried to establish any pregnancies, but the rumors alarm researchers who fear that such papers, published before broad discussions of the risks and benefits of genome editing, could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.

... But scientists don't yet understand all the possible side effects of tinkering with germ cells or embryos. Monkeys have been born from CRISPR-edited embryos, but at least half of the 10 pregnancies in the monkey experiments ended in miscarriage. In the monkeys that were born, not all cells carried the desired changes, so attempts to eliminate a disease gene might not work. The editing can also damage off-target sites in the genome.

Those uncertainties, together with existing regulations, are sufficient to prevent responsible scientists from attempting any genetically altered babies, says George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Although he signed the Science commentary, he says the discussion “strikes me as a bit exaggerated.” He maintains that a de facto moratorium is in place for all technologies until they're proven safe. “The challenge is to show that the benefits are greater than the risks.”

... Although many European countries ban germline genetic engineering in humans, the United States and China do not have such laws. Research with private funds is subject to little oversight in the United States, although any attempts to establish a pregnancy would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In China, any clinical use is prohibited by the Ministry of Health guidelines, but not by law.

... Church hopes such discussions will tackle a question that he says both commentaries avoid: “What is the scenario that we're actually worried about? That it won't work well enough? Or that it will work too well?”
Enrico Fermi (speaking about atomic weapons): Once basic knowledge is acquired, any attempt at preventing its fruition would be as futile as hoping to stop the earth from revolving around the sun.

15 comments:

DK said...

In retrospect, Asilomar was a total joke: rationally making superbugs proved to be near impossible (fitness is invariably too low) and the dangers of lateral gene transfer have never amounted to anything despite unbelievable amount of recombinant materials routinely released into the environment. (Probably because it still is absolutely nothing in comparison to the havoc that's going on in the wild - think of all the bugs eating up and absorbing nucleic acids from all kinds of dead things).

And the same will happen with large-scale practical human cloning/genome editing - like interstellar travel, they will always be a dream decades away. (Dolly the Sheep was born 19 years ago, BTW).

steve hsu said...

Yes, I think direct editing is not as imminent as the current fuss would suggest. However, IVF has become widespread since the first "test tube baby" in 1978. Genomic selection as part of the IVF process is already possible.

DK said...

Do you mean selective abortion? If not, I don't see what it is that's commonly possible. (We are not talking pre-IVF screening, I assume)

steve hsu said...

PGD = preimplantation genetic diagnosis

kurt9 said...

Steve, you recently posted the current results of the BGI's efforts to uncover the genetics of cognitive ability. Essentially they have yet to turn up any strong correlates so far. This suggests to me that embryo engineering is some ways off no matter how effective CRISPR is simply because there aren't any genes worth tweaking to make the kids smarter. Any embryo engineering will be limited to cosmetic characteristics such as height, eye-color, etc - traits most people such as myself don't give a rat's ass about.

Cognitive ability is the holy grail here. Unless some correlates are identified, it seems to me that embryo engineering and the concern surrounding it is little more than hype.

On the other hand, is it possible that the BGI DID find correlates and they are keeping it a secret in order to minimize public concern with it as well as to give the Chinese first-mover advantage with these technologies?

DK said...

PGP is an entirely simple step that has nothing to do with genome editing. It's just a test to decide if abortion is wanted or not. PGP is like a travel to the Moon - challenging but perfectly doable if wanted. Creating a human with a custom genome that is free of the side effect errors is entirely different - like interstellar travel, it faces severe physical barriers.

Emil Kirkegaard said...

We already know some hits (6 SNPs with low p-values, but one of them is probably false positive because it does not load positively on the SNP g factor in cross-population Piffer analysis). The difference between CRIPSR and embryo selection, is that for the first, you need to know the causal variants, whereas the second, you only need to know the right region. Embryo selection is thus the easiest to get started with.

Simon Elliot said...

Hang on a minute, aren't you the slimy bastard behind that lefty anthropology blog?

Emil Kirkegaard said...

A very odd comment. http://scholar.google.dk/citations?user=VKUbfSIAAAAJ&hl=en

Simon Elliot said...

Well either you are or you aren't. That ironically named "debunking denialism" blog isn't it? I tell you, the only denialism that needs to be debunked is your postmodernist egalitarian fiction, which has reigned supreme for far, far too long now.

Emil Kirkegaard said...

I haven't heard of the blog in question. Maybe you should look at my link...


Before attacking people in comments in the future, please do some more work.

Simon Elliot said...

No I'm pretty sure you're the guy. I remember your name from the blog.

Simon Elliot said...

Oh dear, my mistake. But in my defence the two of you do have very similar names. So who are you then, and which stance do you take? Are you a fellow race realist, or a denialist to the hilt?

Emil Kirkegaard said...

I already supplied a link that answers that question. It is my Google Scholar profile. I guess you could read my work and see.

Simon Elliot said...

I have looked at it and I get a mixed impression. Why don't you just tell me?

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