Biohacker dead, don’t blame CRISPR

traywick

As far as we know, the passing of controversial DIY-bioentrepreneur Aaron Traywick has nothing to do with CRISPR. The cause of death is still unknown, and there is not even much information about the alleged herpes vaccine he self-injected a few months ago. According to media reports, it consisted of “live attenuated virus with a missing protein” or maybe contained “engineered copies of the virus DNA code.” Injecting yourself with an unproven concoction is obviously a bad idea, with or without CRISPR. The death news indeed puts biohacking at a crossroads, according to the Atlantic. But even more worrying is the MIT Technology Review scoop that Traywick has been planning human tests of a CRISPR therapy for lung cancer at a wellness center in Tijuana, Mexico. Stem cells researchers have raised the alarm over and over again in the past on unregulated clinics preying on desperate patients in lenient countries. The specter of nascent CRISPR-medical tourism in search of unproven treatments is an urgent issue to tackle.

Three hopes for CRISPR

easter eggs

Off-target paper retraction: Nature Methods has retracted a controversial study questioning CRISPR precision, after its authors admitted they were probably wrong. This blog’s wish is that future studies on CRISPR flaws and virtues are as reliable as the genome-editing technique.

Deregulation statement: US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has announced that USDA will not regulate edited plants as long as they could have been created through conventional breeding. Let’s hope Europe will follow the example.

Gene therapy going “organic”: that’s the hope expressed by Merlin Crossley, when commenting his Nature Genetics paper on mutations beneficial to patients with β-thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. The word organic here means that fetal hemoglobin production can be boosted without inserting foreign DNA.

Do we need a Global Observatory for Gene Editing?

osservatorio globale NatureEveryone knows IPCC, the forum created under the auspices of the United Nations to review the state of knowledge on climate change, draw scenarios on its impact, and compare alternative policies. Does the world need a similar body for the biotech revolution ahead, as claimed by Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut in Nature? Is a Global Observatory on Gene Editing the solution to our CRISPR troubles? We asked a pioneer of gene therapy and a pioneer of gene drives, but also a bioethicist, a political scientist, a social psychologist, a science historian. Continue reading

BioRxiv: an instant quality check for CRISPR science (with a little help from Zuckerberg)

bioRxiv

It was August 2 when Nature published the latest stunning study, introducing to the world the first human embryos edited in the US by Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Not even a month had passed, and on August 28, those results have been challenged on a much younger and quick medium: the bioRxiv pre-print website. I felt like a déjà vu happening. It reminded me of the Nature Methods study questioning CRISPR’s precision in June. Within three weeks bioRxiv has already challenged the controversial data about off-target mutations by posting two critical analyses which soon became three. In short, this server is rewriting a part of CRISPR’s science and it is becoming an emergency tool for correcting mistakes that, inevitably, sometimes tarnish the most respected peer-reviewed publications. How does it work? Continue reading

Edited embryos. Why to say yes or no

embryo-main

The exploit announced last week by Nature marks an advancement in CRISPR performance in human embryos big enough to say that yes, germ line editing will probably become a viable option sooner or later. It means that some genetic diseases (at least those caused by a single mutation) can be corrected not only in the treated individuals but also in their offspring. The idea of genetic diseases disappearing from the face of Earth is bound to remain a dream, as Eric Lander explained at the 2015 Washington Summit on Human Gene Editing. In short, with rare Mendelian diseases, the vast majority of situations can currently be addressed by in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, while complex diseases are, well, too complex to handle. Anyway, when you come to efficiency and accuracy, results achieved by Shoukhrat Mitalipov and colleagues are exciting: CRISPR science walks on robust and fast legs. As for the bioethics of the experiment, we should try not to get stuck with overused labels. Continue reading

Clearing CRISPR of off-target suspicion

mathcrisprFaster, better, cheaper is a motto adopted by Nasa that perfectly fits CRISPR as well. The most popular technique for genetic modification, in fact, has the reputation of being quick, affordable and precise. This deserved good name was unexpectedly tarnished by a study questioning the technology precision, published in the June issue of Nature Methods. However, reports about CRISPR’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Just over a month later, three analyses challenging the controversial study are already available in the pre-publication archive bioRxiv, and Nature Methods has alerted its readers about the criticisms received by publishing an editorial note which could turn into a retraction. Continue reading