Sunday, October 18, 2015

Are you a man or a mouse? Could be difficult to tell anymore?

During the weeks leading up the Nobel Prizes, there was plenty of speculation that the researchers behind "Crispr" would win the award, like in this report:
Scientists behind the discovery of a technology called CRISPR-Cas9 that allows researchers to edit virtually any gene they target are among the top contenders for Nobel prizes next month, according to an annual analysis by Thomson Reuters.
Of course, that did not happen:
Two of those responsible for CRISPR existence, Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) and Emmanuel (sic) Charpentier (now based in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute) have surprisingly not won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, despite Reuter’s prediction. Instead the prize has gone to Thomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for their DNA repair mechanism with connections at the Francis Crick Institute.
So, it might be next year then.

CRISPR freaked me out right from the first time I heard about it.  It is darn creepy to target a gene and edit it.  As I noted in this post,
Most of the public don't have a clue. And worse, don't spend even a minute wondering, contemplating, studying, about what it means to be human.
The only cool thing is this: the co-discoverers of the particular technology that has apparently made gene editing easy are women scientists.

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna after their $3 million Breakthrough Prize

I should use the favorite GOP politician line of "I am not a scientist" and then go on to commenting ;)

In this NY Times science piece on a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting, the author writes:
Among the scientists describing recent advances was one of Crispr’s pioneers, George Church of Harvard Medical School. In the midst of his presentation, packed with the fine details of biochemistry and genetics, Dr. Church dropped a bombshell.
In a typical experiment, scientists use Crispr to alter a single gene. But in recent work with pig cells, Dr. Church and his colleagues used Crispr to alter 62 genes at once. The researchers hope that this achievement may someday make it possible to use pig organs for transplantation into humans.
But the experiment also raises a deeper question: Could scientists someday alter complicated human traits by manipulating many genes at once?
Are you beginning to freak out now?  Well, hey, welcome to the club!
We are certainly free to imagine a world in which parents have hundreds of genes in their designer babies edited to alter everything from the color of their eyes to their scores on intelligence tests. This experiment on pigs is a far cry from that scenario.
But that doesn’t mean that scientists won’t learn how to alter many genes in one fell swoop.
You see why I have been harping on and on that the single greatest challenge for individuals and societies will be a tough question but one that does not need too many words: what does it mean to be human?  You make up your own mind on the following sentences from Martine Roblatt, who is "the Sirius satellite radio founder turned pharmaceutical magnate turned transhumanist":
“Weird does not mean unethical. There’s a 45-degree line on a graph—as long as the utility exceeds the yuckiness, social acceptance wins,” she said. “Taking organs from dead people and putting them in living people once seemed weird, it’s not weird anymore. It would be stupid to abjure nature’s greatest invention since chemistry.”
Oh, btw, Roblatt's big plan? To grow human organs in pigs at a "factory" like in this rendering:

It's a brave new world!

Most read this past month