The unfathomable hazards of garden-shed Frankensteins

Never one to shy away from sensationalism, the Daily Mail yesterday led with this headline:

China’s modern-day Frankenstein babies – and a new genetic experiment that could wipe out mankind

If you’re going to do something, it’s worth doing it right and that headline is truly a work of fear-mongering genius.

You might remember the Daily Mail’s anti “Frankenstein food” campaign of the late 90s. Well now it can go one better and write about actual Frankenstein babies.

Unlike the conclusion of that headline, however, the science it is condemning is very real – at least according to YouTube.

So what’s going on?

From Associated Press:

HONG KONG — A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Why did he do it?

The scientist in question is He Jiankui. And, it seems he did it for what he believes was a good reason.

The father of the twins is HIV positive and didn’t want his children to suffer his fate. So the scientist used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a gene called CCR5 that allows the HIV virus to enter a cell.

Without this gene, the theory goes that the person is much less susceptible to HIV infection. Although, they are not immune.

Jiankui suggested this same technique can be used to create immunity for all kind of genetic diseases.

Here is why the scientist said he did it, from his video:

As a father of two girls, I can’t think of a gift more beautiful and wholesome for society than giving another couple a chance to start a family.

The media hyped panic about Louise Brown’s birth as the first IVF baby. But over 40 years, regulation and morals have developed together with IVF, ensuring only therapeutic application to help more than 8 million children come into this world.

Gene surgery is another IVF enhancement. And it’s only meant to help a small number of families. For a few children, gene surgery may be the only viable way to heal an inherited disease and prevent a lifetime of suffering.

We hope you have mercy for them.

Their parents don’t want a designer baby. Just a child who won’t suffer from a disease which medicine can now prevent.

Gene surgery is and should remain a technology for healing. Enhancing IQ or selecting hair or eye colour is not what a loving parent does. That should be banned.

I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I am willing to take the criticism for them.

We should also note that he may not have done what he claims. All we have is his video. He may be a legitimate scientist, but that doesn’t mean he is above lying.

However, I’m sure the truth will emerge fairly soon.

Why do people take issue with what he’s done?

Well, firstly and most obviously people fear what they don’t understand. They also fear what they cannot control. And this development has both in spades.

I’ll let the Daily Mail tell you why you should be afraid of this technology:

If the genetically altered Chinese babies survive to have children, then Professor He’s mutant gene — with all its unfathomable hazards — would be capable of infecting humankind in perpetuity.

Professor He’s announcement is the realisation of a dread fear among respectable scientists that CRISPR editing may open the gates to a world of ‘garden-shed Frankensteins’. 

What’s more, one of Britain’s most renowned scientists recently warned from beyond the grave that we should abandon this field of science for ever — or risk destroying humankind.

Last month, a posthumously published essay by Professor Hawking predicted that by tinkering with our own DNA, we are on the brink of creating a genetically modified master race capable of wiping us out.

I think that about sums it up.

But it’s not just Daily Mail writers who are outraged. The majority of the scientific community isn’t happy either.

From Nature:

Years of research is needed to show that meddling with the genome of an embryo is not going to cause harm, says Joyce Harper, who studies women’s and reproductive health at University College London. . Legislation and public discussion should also occur before genome editing is used in embryos destined for implantation. “Today’s report of genome editing human embryos for resistance to HIV is premature, dangerous and irresponsible,” says Harper.

More than 100 Chinese biomedical researchers have posted a strongly worded statement online condemning He’s claims. “Directly jumping into human experiments can only be described as crazy,” the statement reads. The scientists call on Chinese authorities to investigate the case and introduce strict regulations on this procedure.

“This is a huge blow to the international reputation and the development of Chinese science, especially in the field of biomedical research,” the statement says. “It is extremely unfair to the large majority of diligent and conscientious scientists in China who are pursuing research and innovation while strictly adhering to ethical limits.”

What do you think about this rogue scientist’s gene editing?

Is he a necessary rebel pushing medicine forward and saving generations from easily-preventable diseases?

Or is he a modern-day Frankenstein who has opened Pandora’s Box and endangered us all?

Let me know:

What does it look like on Mars?

So, the InSight lander survived its seven minutes of terror yesterday and has begun beaming back photos.

If you ever wondered what Mars looks like, here’s InSight’s first photo:

Source: NASA

Looking at that photo, it looks like many places on Earth. So it’s easy to forget that if you were there yourself you’d die in an instant.

InSight’s mission itself sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi film.

From The Washington Post:

The mission’s objective is to determine what Mars is made of and how it has changed since it formed more than 4 billion years ago. The results could help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet became the dry, desolate world we know today.

Early in its history, Mars may have looked a lot like Earth. Magnetization in ancient rocks suggests that it had a global magnetic field like that of Earth, powered by a churning mantle and metallic core. The field would have protected the planet from radiation, allowing it to hold on to an atmosphere much thicker than the one that exists now. This, in turn, probably enabled liquid water to pool on Mars’s surface. Images from satellites reveal the outlines of long-gone lakes, deltas and river-carved canyons.

But the last 3 billion years have been a slow-motion disaster for the Red Planet. The dynamo died, the magnetic field faltered, the water evaporated and more than half of the atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds. The InSight mission is designed to find out why.

Now, if you’d like to find out how to invest in these kind of developments, rather than just read about them, Eoin Treacy is your man.

Investing in space is one of the key topics in his Frontier Tech Investor service.

If you’d like to learn about how Eoin recommends you invest in space, and a whole host of other cutting-edge technology, you can take out a trial of Frontier Tech Investor here.
Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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