Now world gets to see what CRISPR can really do

Synthetic life.

It may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It’s real.

“Scientists have created the world’s first living organism that has a fully synthetic and radically altered DNA code,” reports The Guardian.

I guess you could call it one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

So you would have thought it would have come with more fanfare, and certainly more controversy, but press coverage has been few and far between.

Reading a bit more into it, it turns out this wasn’t really the first. The first was created in 2010, but it was not “radically redesigned” as this creation was.

As a layperson, reading about the way it came to life, it sounds kind of terrifying.

From The Guardian:

The redesigned genetic code was then chemically synthesised and, piece by piece, added to E coli where it replaced the organism’s natural genome. The result, reported in Nature, is a microbe with a completely synthetic and radically altered DNA code. Known as Syn61, the bug is a little longer than normal, and grows more slowly, but survives nonetheless.

The main benefit to this synthetic lifeform is in its uniqueness. Again, from The Guardian:

Such designer lifeforms could come in handy, Chin [the project’s leader] believes. Because their DNA is different, invading viruses will struggle to spread inside them, making them in effect virus-resistant. That could bring benefits. E coli is already used by the biopharmaceutical industry to make insulin for diabetes and other medical compounds for cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and eye disease, but entire production runs can be spoiled when bacterial cultures are contaminated with viruses or other microbes. But that is not all: in future work, the freed-up genetic code could be repurposed to make cells churn out designer enzymes, proteins and drugs.

So these synthetic organisms could become a leading weapon in the fight against antibiotic resistance and killer viruses.

“2019 is the year when the training wheels come off and the world gets to see what CRISPR can really do”

Last year, renegade Chinese scientist He Jiankui made headlines around the world for helping to make the world’s first genetically edited babies.

The babies in question were a pair of twins with a HIV positive father. He used CRISPR-Cas9 to make them virtually immune to HIV.

As you can imagine, the world condemned He.

And as usual The Daily Mail managed the best fear-mongering headline of the bunch: “China’s modern-day Frankenstein babies – and a new genetic experiment that could wipe out mankind”.

But unlike most Daily Mail fearmongering, the scientific community agreed. He was a bad man who was endangering our very existence.

Fast-forward to today and CRISPR is back in the news for better reasons. This time, it’s being used to treat cancer.

From NPR:

A U.S. CRISPR study that had been approved for cancer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has finally started. A university spokesman on Monday confirmed for the first time that two patients had been treated using CRISPR.

One patient had multiple myeloma, and one had sarcoma. Both had relapsed after undergoing standard treatment.

The revelation comes as several other human trials of CRISPR are starting or are set to start in the U.S., Canada and Europe to test CRISPR’s efficacy in treating various diseases.

“2019 is the year when the training wheels come off and the world gets to see what CRISPR can really do for the world in the most positive sense,” says Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing scientist at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle and the University of California, Berkeley.

As Nick discovered, CRISPR will likely go down in history as the most important scientific development of all time. Click here to find out why.

NASA to start 3D printing body parts in space

Scientists have been able to grow simple body parts for a good few years now. But more complicated organs, as you can imagine, are more difficult.

Complex organs need a complex scaffolding to make sure they don’t collapse in on themselves while they are developing. And the problem comes when it’s time to remove this scaffolding.

At the fundamental level, the reason these organs are collapsing in on themselves is because of gravity. Remove gravity from the equation and there will be no need for scaffolding.

At last that’s the theory.

Now a company called Techshot is working in partnership with NASA is taking 3D organ printing to space.

From BBC News:

Developed in partnership with NASA, Techshot’s BioFabrication Facility (BFF) is a microwave oven-sized device that uses 3D printing techniques to create patches for heart repairs using a patient’s own stem cells.

It’s due to launch to the ISS on SpaceX mission CRS-18, scheduled for May this year.

Ultimately, the aim is to grow complete human hearts in space.

The first year will be spent putting the BFF through its paces to check that it is functioning as designed, before test printing starts in earnest.

And while 3D printing organs in space may sound expensive (and it is), the company’s founder believes it will actually end up cheaper than a traditional transplant in the long run.

“An organ manufactured in space from the patient’s own stem cells will not require anti-rejection drugs. Therefore, the overall lifetime cost for a single transplant is expected to be lower for the patient receiving an organ manufactured in space than the alternative,” says Rich Boling, Techshot’s vice-president.

Either way, it’s definitely an interesting development and an innovative solution to the scaffolding problem.

However, Google and CRISPR might beat Techshot to the punch.

As Technology Review reports:

Ever wonder why some fortunate people eat chips, don’t exercise, and still don’t get clogged arteries? It could be because they’ve got lucky genes.

Now Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is bankrolling a startup company that plans to use gene editing to spread fortunate DNA variations with “one-time” injections of the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Heart doctors involved say the DNA-tweaking injections could “confer lifelong protection” against heart disease.

Big idea: The startup, Verve Therapeutics, said it had raised $58.5 million from investors including Alphabet’s venture fund, GV. What makes Verve different? Most gene-therapy companies have gone after rare diseases like haemophilia. But Verve thinks editing people’s DNA could instead help solve the most common cause of death.

News is pretty light on the ground on this development, but it certainly sounds promising. And with Google’s money behind it, it could be a goer.

This is also something Nick predicted in The Exponentialist. So it’s interesting to see projects like this that were once theoretical getting real funding and doing real work.

If you want to find out more about CRISPR, and why it could one day eliminate virtually all disease (big claim I know, but read the book and you’ll see), click here to get a free copy of Nick’s book now.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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