A report this April rocked the scientific world: scientists in China reported editing the genomes of human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. It was a limited success: of 86 embryos injected with CRISPR/Cas9, only 71 survived and only 4 had their target gene successfully edited. The edits didn’t take in every cell, creating a mosaic pattern, and worse, unwanted DNA mutations were introduced.
“Their study should give pause to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes during [in vitro fertilization],” George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The New York Times. “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.”
As Daley detailed last week in his excellent presentation at Harvard Medical School’s Talks@12 series, the report reignited an ethical debate around tampering with life that’s hummed around genetic and stem cell research for decades. What the Chinese report adds is the theoretical capability of not just changing your genetic makeup, but changing the DNA you pass on to your children.
Second in a two-part series on metabolic liver disease. Read part 1.
According to the American Liver Foundation, about 1 in 10 Americans have some form of liver disease. One rare, under-recognized disorder, lysosomal acid lipase (LAL) deficiency, can fly under the radar until it becomes life-threatening, often requiring a liver transplant. LAL deficiency currently has no specific treatment, but that may change thanks to combined expertise in genetics, metabolism and hepatology.
“LAL deficiency is currently under-diagnosed,” Neilan says. “We think the disease is more common than doctors have thought and now, with a treatment in trial, it is of greater importance to identify those patients so they may have better outcomes.”
First in a two-part series on metabolic liver disease. Read part 2.
In the clinical world, Boston Children’s Hospital surgeon Khashayar Vakili, MD, specializes in liver, kidney and intestinal transplant surgeries, while in the lab he is doing work which, for some patients, could eliminate the need for a transplant surgeon altogether.
When you go into Netflix to choose a movie or Amazon to buy a book, they’re ready with proactive suggestions for your next purchase, based on your past history. Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, would like to see something similar happening in medicine, where today, patients often find themselves repeating their medical history “again and again to every provider,” as Kohane recently told Harvard Medicine.
“Medicine as a whole is a knowledge-processing business that increasingly is taking large amounts of data and then, in theory, bringing that information to the point of care so that doctor and patient have a maximally informed visit,” says Kohane, chair of informatics at Boston Children’s Hospital and co-director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.
One of the immune system’s basic jobs is to tell “self” from “non-self.” Our cells carry markers that the immune system uses to recognize them as being part of us. Cells that don’t carry those markers—like bacteria and other pathogens—therefore don’t belong.
Cancer cells, however, fall into a gray area. They’re non-self, yet they also bear markers that connote self-ness—one of the reasons the immune system has a hard time “seeing” and reacting to cancer.
Can we focus the immune system’s spotlight on cancer cells? The provisional answer is yes. Research on cancer immunotherapy—treatments that spur an immune response against cancer cells—has boomed in recent years. (The journal Science recognized cancer immunotherapy as its Breakthrough of the Year in 2013.)
Exome sequencing comes to the clinic (JAMA)
An approachable and thorough summary of the growing trend, describing the ways in which sequencing can help provide a diagnosis, the diagnostic yield (as high as 40 percent or more, depending on the population), how often the results have changed treatment decisions and the question of who pays.
Who Owns CRISPR? (The Scientist)
Excellent coverage of the escalating patent scramble for genome editing.
Can sequencing of newborns’ genomes provide useful medical information beyond what current newborn screening already provides? What results are appropriate to report back to parents? What are the potential risks and harms? How should DNA sequencing information be integrated into patient care?
Tools like CRISPR could give us the power to alter humanity’s genetic future. A group of senior American scientists and ethicists have called for a moratorium any attempts to create genetically engineered children using these technologies until there can be a robust debate.
Protection Without a Vaccine(The New York Times)
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have successfully used a type of gene therapy to make monkeys resistant to HIV. Could this be applied to other diseases for diseases for which there is no vaccine?
More about that doctor shortage, er, poor distribution of physicians(The Washington Post)
On Tuesday, the American Association of Medical Colleges released a report predicting a national physician shortage of 90,000 doctors by 2025. But it may be that we have more of a distribution problem than a volume problem; we need more incentives for doctors to practice in medically underserved areas.
Internet of DNA (MIT Technology Review)
Emerging projects in Toronta, Santa Cruz and elsewhere are working toward being able compare DNA from sick people around the world via the Internet to identify hard-to-spot causes of disease—analogous to using the “Compare documents” function in Word.
Engineering the perfect baby (MIT Technology Review)
Since the birth of genetic engineering, people have worried about designer babies. Now, with gene editing and CRISPR, they might really be possible. Bioethicists and scientists weigh in on what “germ line engineering” would mean.