Monday, March 10. 2014
In the November 2012 elections, voters of Washington state had to decide on Initiative 522. I-522 would require food sold in the state to be labeled if any of its components were produced by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Proponents made a necessary distinction between selectively bred plants and animals and those that are GMOs. Selective breeding has been standard practice in agriculture since man began herding animals and growing crops. GMO plants and animals are those that have a genetic makeup that would not occur naturally through normal breeding. For example, a plant that has had a gene inserted that gives it resistance to weed killer and a cow that has been cloned so it is immune to mad-cow disease are GMOs.
It was a contentious battle, with supporters of I-522 telling consumers that genetic engineering has unintended consequences and that ingesting GMO products may make us sick. Proponents insisted that we have a right to know what is in our food.
Ads against I-522 did not suggest food made from GMOs was perfectly safe or that the concerns of food purists were unfounded. The opposition focused on the wording of the initiative and on the impact labeling would have on the price of food.
I-522 was defeated with 45% of voters supporting the initiative and 55% opposed. A similar initiative in California, Proposition 37, also did not pass. In 2012, California voters were 49% in support of labeling food made from GMOs; 51% voted against Prop. 37.
Analyzing these votes, it is apparent that nearly half of the voting residents in California and Washington are concerned about eating GMOs and want to be informed about which foods contain GMO products. A poll conducted by ABC News found that 65% of Americans either believe GMOs are unsafe to eat or are unsure about their safety, and 93% of those polled believe that the government should require labeling.
At the same time, in another West Coast state, genetically modified human embryos are being made with little objection from the general public.
Continue reading at the National Catholic Register >>
Sunday, February 16. 2014
On February 25th and 26th, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be having a meeting to discuss allowing the technique that creates embryos with three genetic parents to proceed to clinical trials. The "three-parent" embryo technique is also called mitochondrial replacement, maternal spindle transfer, or oocyte modification.
In an effort to "treat" mitochondrial disease, this technique would intentionally modify IVF embryos to have the genetic material from three persons. This modification is also one that will extend beyond the children produced and will be passed onto future generations. (For more information about "three-parent" embryos read my article at the National Catholic Register.)
Over 40 countries have banned such inheritable genetic modifications. Regrettably, the United States has no such laws and it is up the FDA to regulate the practice. They are currently taking written opinions on the subject, but only until this Tuesday, February 18th. The FDA needs to hear from the public on this issue.
This is a pivotal point in human history. Will we allow the intentional genetic modification of our children and grandchildren? I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say the future of our species depends on how we answer that question.
Please tell the FDA what you think. The contact information given on the advisory panel web page is Gail Dapolito, Fax 301-827-0294, e-mail: gail.dapolito[at]fda.hhs.gov or Rosanna Harvey, Fax 301-827-0294, e-mail: rosanna.harve[at]fda.hhs.gov
Here is the letter I wrote to the committee. Please feel free to use any or all of it.
FDA Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee:Alternatively, the Center for Genetics and Society has a letter you can sign. They suggest embryo screening as a "safer" alternative which pro-lifers cannot agree with, but overall the content of the letter is excellent. The Center for Genetics and Society is a progressive organization. It is important that the FDA hear from all points on the political spectrum. This is one issue that both the left and right can agree on.
Friday, October 25. 2013
To stop the latest of the Brave New World movements, we need a cacophony of resistance. Luckily, it is not just pro-lifers that are sounding the alarm about three-parent IVF, also called mitochondrial replacement (MR).
People from all sides are voicing their concerns about the ethics and safety of this technique where a donor egg's nucleus is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a woman with mitochondrial disease. That genetically-engineered egg is then fertilized with sperm creating an embryo that has genetic material from three persons, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the donor, and nuclear DNA contributed by the parents.
And while it sounds like a nice thing to be able to help women who have mitochondrial disease to have healthy children (a woman with a mutation in her mtDNA cannot help but pass on that mutation because we inherit our mitochondria from our mother), there is a laundry list of ethical issues that finally seem to be gaining traction.
Jessica Cussins, an IVF-conceived adult, pretty much hits them all in her piece at the Huffington Post.
There is the fact that there is a shocking lack of animal studies which means that no one really knows that this is safe, and yet many are willing to move forward with this blatant experimentation on the next generation.
There is also the fact that this is a germ-line genetic modification which means it will be passed on to further generations. I will add that the only way to prevent that would be to toss out all the female embryos and transfer only males since they could not pass on their mitochondria. This has been suggested already.
Finally, Cussins points out something I have yet to cover: the fact that mitochondrial replacement has more in common with SCNT, better known as cloning, than it does IVF. In both cloning and MR, the nucleus of a donor egg is removed and replaced with another. In cloning, the egg is made to think it has been fertilized. In MR, the egg is fertilized.
We know that SCNT in animals has had some serious problems. Cloning trials in agricultural animals in New Zealand were halted because an unacceptable number of the cloned animals and their gestating mothers had to be euthanized.
So, I just can't agree with the recent article in The Scientist, which compared the unease around mitochondrial replacement techniques to the initial unease surrounding traditional IVF. I'm glad that people were concerned about the welfare of us IVF kids, but mitochondrial replacement (which is much closer technically to reproductive cloning than it is to traditional IVF) is exponentially more problematic.On a certain level, she is right. This is not just another reproductive technology. We are on a threshold. Will we move forward in genetically-engineering our children, forever changing the course of humanity? Cussins points out the importance:
There are larger social and ethical considerations that mitochondrial replacement also forces us to confront. Most importantly, this technology raises one of the thorniest questions humanity will ever face: are we willing to genetically modify future generations of humans?Cussins last thoughts hint at the same suggestion that I have made. Instead of engineering people to not have mitochondrial disease, how about we focus on cures and treatments for mitochondrial disease, not just for future generations, but for people who are living with it right now:
I hope that this discussion will also raise awareness and improve access to healthcare for the people who are already alive and struggling with mitochondrial diseases today.Of course we Catholics reject IVF in all its forms and we understand that the three-parent IVF is just a logical progression of making life outside the body. But, we have allies in this fight against the creation of genetically-engineered children in those who may disagree with our views on reproductive technologies. I am certain it will take all our voices together to halt this bullet train.
Monday, October 14. 2013
This year scientists announced a major breakthrough and a possible gene therapy for Down Syndrome. In cells taken from a person with Downs, they were able to silence the extra 21st chromosome. This may mean a targeted therapy to help fix the health and cognitive problems caused by have that extra bit of genetic material.
Reactions were mixed. Some thought that people with Down Syndrome are perfect as God made them and we should do nothing to change them. I understand this reaction very well. We live in a society that kills 90% of people with Down Syndrome before they make it out of the womb. It is entirely natural to want to protect those with Downs because they are wonderfully lovely people that, frankly, the world needs more of, not less.
I saw this breakthrough a bit differently. I found the news exciting and full of hope. I too believe that God made those with Down Syndrome as perfect people, but they are not defined by their chromosomes. They do have an extra that causes all kinds of problems from cognitive difficulty, to heart defects, to cancer. I feel it is important to treat these issues. We would not hesitate to treat cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease or even autism if there was gene therapy available.
That being said, I find it hard to comment on these very important discussion because I do not have a special needs child. I look to other parents of special needs kids to help guide me. This piece, Down Syndrome Research, Hope for My Daughter, by Leticia Velasquez at Amy Julie Becker's Thin Places blog is so fantastic I had to share it with you. Leticia is the author of the blog Cause of Our Joy, co-founder of KIDS (Keep Infants with Down Syndrome), and the editor of A Special Mother is Born. She also has a daughter, Christina, with Down Syndrome who has regressed over the years. Christina no longer speaks. Leticia hopes this breakthrough will help bring her daughter back:
My daughter is trapped by Down syndrome’s confused messaging in her brain. Do I love her as she is, even if she never speaks again? Of course I do! Do I want her to speak with all my heart so that she can find more happiness in the world, in friendships, reading, and fulfilling work?Beautiful. I share Leticia's hope that someday all people with Down Syndrome can live the fullest lives possible. I think gene therapy may be a step in that direction.
Tuesday, September 24. 2013
In the last year there has been a push in both the United Kingdom and the United States for permission to create children with three genetic parents. This technique, often called mitochondrial replacement (MR), is presented as a simple switching out the mitochondria in the eggs of women with mitochondrial disease. We inherit all of our mitochondria from our mother, so a woman with mitochondrial disease cannot help but pass that onto her offspring.
In reality, the technique is far from simple. The nucleus of a donor egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of the woman with mitochrondrial disease. This creates a genetically-engineered egg where the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in the cytoplasm of the egg is from the donor and the nuclear DNA, the chromosomes we all learned about in biology, is from the woman with the mitochondrial disease.
The embryos created with IVF using these genetically-engineered eggs have the nuclear DNA of a woman and a man, like all other embryos, but would also have the mitochondrial DNA of the woman who donated the egg. These children would have the genetic material from three individuals.
In addition, these genetically-engineered children, well at least the girls, could not help but pass this engineering onto their offspring. This is a modification that would affect generations.
In the UK, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust all came out in favor of pursuing the technique saying that because the chromosomes were unaltered, mitochondrial replacement was analogous to "replacing batteries in a camera" and would have no effect on other traits in the children.
Also, there are suggestions that sex selection be used in conjunction with MR. If all the female embryos are tossed out and only male three-parent embryos are transferred to the womb, then the modification will not be passed on to further generations because only women pass on their mitochondria. This is would be a fail-safe in case some defective mitochondria hitch a ride with the nucleus into the donor egg or something else goes wrong.
During all of this debate, I have wondered where is all the data to suggest that this technique is safe. There is a delicate balance of signals between mtDNA and nuclear DNA. Where is the evidence that replacing mtDNA has no ill effect? How can we even be discussing moving forward with this kind of human genetic engineering unless it has been shown to be safe in generations of animal studies? Where are those studies?
A recent paper in Science exposes the reality that there is little data on this technique and the data we do have suggests that MR is not just like "replacing batteries."
So far the only primates created with this technique are four macaques that have only reached 3 years of age. Other animal models show that in males, a mtDNA-nuclear DNA mismatch has some serious effects that may not be apparent until adulthood:
Studies on model organisms, ranging from mice to fruit flies, indicate that MR can profoundly change the expression profiles of nuclear genes and affect a range of important traits such as individual development, cognitive behavior, and key health parameters. These studies also suggest that males of reproductive age are particularly sensitive to MR-induced effects....So here is the reality: many are willing to move forward with this technique in humans when 1. there are no primates created with this technique that have reached adulthood or even had another generation and 2. it is clear that mtDNA does have an affect on the nuclear DNA and a mismatch between the two could have serious effects that may not be apparent until later in life.
This would be pure human experimentation with little or no regard for the people who are being experimented on.
So I ask: When will it be enough?
At what point will we stand and say, "No more unethical experimentation on the next generation!"
When will we turn to parents and say, "Sorry but your desire for a child does not trump the health and safety of that child."
When will we turn to academics in their Ivory Towers and ask them why they have such little regard for the health and well-being of future children?
I would say now is a good time.
Thursday, July 18. 2013
Amazing news was announced in the field of gene therapy this week. Scientists in Massachusetts have taken the cells of a person with Down Syndrome and have silenced the extra 21st chromosome in those cells. The Guardian has the story:
Scientists have corrected the genetic fault that causes Down's syndrome – albeit in isolated cells – raising the prospect of a radical therapy for the disorder.The scientists used a gene normally found on the X chromosome to shut down the extra chromosome. Men have one X chromosome in their cells, and women have two. Only one X chromosome is needed for a cell to function, so the Xist gene inactivates one of the X chromosomes by covering it in RNA. Researchers were able to insert the Xist gene in the chromosome 21, which then silenced it.
This breakthrough could also be applied to other disorders like Edward syndrome which is trisomy 18, and Patau syndrome which is trisomy 13.
Researchers were very clear that any treatment from this technique maybe a decade or more away if at all. Anytime you insert DNA into the genome it is dangerous and safety needs to be the foremost concern.
That being said this is excellent news. This technique could possibly be targeted to cells in the body where an extra chromosome 21 causes problems. People with Down Syndrome can suffer from physical problems like gastrointestinal issues and blood cancers. Scientists envision using this technique, for example, in the bone marrow to prevent leukemia.
Of course this begs the question: Could such a technique be used early enough in development to turn off the extra chromosome in all the cells of the body? In theory, yes. If the modification was done in the embryo, then the modification may be incorporated into every cell during development. But that would require creating and manipulating life in a laboratory which we cannot support.
I know there are many who worry that breakthroughs like this imply that their beloved child with Down Syndrome needs "fixing" and that it is not good enough to love them they way they are. I am not a parent of a special needs child so it is incredibly difficult for me to comment on these very valid concerns. Making genetics my profession, I have always thought a person is more than just a sum of their genes. So for me, a person with Down Syndrome is so much more than their extra chromosome 21. The syndrome is not who they are. It does not define them. And so therefore I have never personally perceived treating the cognitive and physical issues associated with Downs as a rejection of their person.
I also do not believe that a person with Down Syndrome needs to be "fixed." But I could certainly see how such measures could be perceived as such. At the same time, we do not see treating other genetic disease like cystic fibrosis with gene therapy as "fixing" the person, but instead as "fixing" the disease. I think the same applies here. Gene therapy that allows children to live a healthy life is not a rejection of who they are.
And yet, every time I read about another such breakthrough in gene therapy, it is always bittersweet for me. After the initial hope there is despair. Despair for those who are denied the possibility of such a treatment because they were killed in the womb.
That is the problem with using abortion to "treat" genetic disease: it is the fallacious assumption no treatment will ever be developed or that no cure will ever be found. Instead of putting faith in the advancement of medicine, we instead deny children the promise of cutting-edge research by terminating their lives before they make it out of the womb. Death is never a real medical treatment. In death there is no hope.
So while this news is exciting and I pray that in the future it will improve the health of those with Down Syndrome, I also mourn for those who have been denied its promise.
Wednesday, April 10. 2013
I read somewhere that while both George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World contained dystopian futures, Huxley's world, where humans are made in "hatcheries" and the people were kept compliant, not by the threat of Big Brother, but by the numbing of their senses with the pleasure-inducing drug "soma," was a more plausible scenario.
After reading "In vitro eugenics" by Dr. Robert Sparrow in the Journal of Medical Ethics, I have to agree. Dr. Sparrow explores the possibility of creating embryos in the lab, then using the stem cells from those embryos to create egg and sperm cells, and then using those gametes to create more embryos. Essentially, this would take human reproduction into the laboratory not just for one generation, but for generation after generation. These embryos would be "orphaned at conception." They "would have no genetic parents: there would be no living individual—or indeed individual that had ever lived—who could be described as the genetic progenitor of such embryos." Sparrow calls this "in vitro eugenics."
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Tuesday, April 2. 2013
For those who are not up to speed on the "three-parent" embryo technique, here is a quick primer. This variation of IVF was developed to “prevent” the inheritance of mitochondrial disease. Not all of our DNA that we inherit is in the nuclei of the egg and sperm that join at fertilization. In the cytoplasm of our mother’s egg are mitochondria. Mitochondria have their own DNA called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA only from our mother because sperm’s mitochondria are dumped at conception. There are genetic mutations that cause very serious disease found in mtDNA and a woman with a such a mutation cannot help but pass this mutation on to her children.
This technique, called “maternal spindle transfer,” removes the nucleus of an egg from a woman with mitochondrial disease and places it into a donor egg with normal mtDNA. That genetically modified egg is then fertilized with the father’s sperm and a genetically modified embryo is the result. An embryo with the genetic material from two women and one man.
And last week, while many Catholics were rightly focused on the Supreme Court arguements on same-sex marriage and all of the future implications, I was wringing my hands about this turn of events in the world of human genetic engineering.
Why? There are two very important reasons. First, this technique will usher in a world where we are not just content to pick the "best" child out of many that the somewhat still natural process of IVF produces. It signals an acceptance of genetically engineering the next generation. Even though the fight against mitochondrial disease is a laudable endeavor, maternal spindle transfer and other techniques like it mean that medicine is pointed in the wrong direction: engineering children instead of treating the disease.
Second, this is not your average gene therapy where one patient is treated in the cells affected by a faulty gene. This is a germ-line modification that will be passed on to every generation after. So not only does the HFEA approve genetic modifications to one child, but to grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. A dangerous precedent indeed, especially to those generations that never gave consent.
Marcy Darnovsky, from the progressive Center For Genetics And Society, said it succinctly, “People have characterized this as sliding down a slippery slope. This one actually throws us off a cliff."
And do not think that this is simply a problem for the Brits. They at least have laws against techniques like maternal spindle transfer. Scientists in Oregon are poised to begin creating three-parent children with maternal spindle transfer. All that is needed in the U.S. is approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
It may seem that the lack of reverence for the gift of human life could not be any greater than it is today. But I fear this signals a new, more devastating, culture of death. One that is not simply content to "choose a better human," but one that now has to "create a better human."
Tuesday, January 29. 2013
Last week the world was talking about Harvard’s George Church who suggested we use Neanderthal DNA to resurrect Neanderthals.
From the UK’s Daily Mail:
They’re usually thought of as a brutish, primitive species.And while the world focused on the creation of a fictional Neanderthal, I was horrified by Church’s “need” for a very real “adventurous female human.”
Continue reading at LifeNews >>
Sunday, January 27. 2013
In October of 2012, scientists in Oregon announced they had created a dozen human embryos with the genetic material from two women and one man. While these embryos never made it to a womb, these researchers are hopeful that they will be given federal approval to, as USA Today reports, "test the procedure in women." This, of course, means transferring these genetically modified embryos to mothers willing to gestate them.
A few weeks later, in December 2012, scientists from New York proclaimed they have improved upon the technique that created these three-parent embryos and are intent on further developing their breakthrough for use in humans.
Continue reading at the National Catholic Register >>
Tuesday, January 22. 2013
Another great episode of BioTalk with my friend Chelsea Zimmerman from Reflections of a Paralytic about the new technique that creates embryos with three-genetic parents and how the lack of any federal regulation is going to lead to the Brave New United States.
Wednesday, November 14. 2012
Scientists from the University of Washington have been able to remove the extra chromosome 21 in cells taken from a person with Down Syndrome. In a gene therapy process that targets only the extra genetic material in the cell, scientist were able to successfully remove the chromosome 21 without damaging the integrity of the rest of the DNA in the nucleus.
Now I know some pro-lifers are immediately suspicious of this announcement thinking that it is meant to create a complete "cure" for Down Syndrome. A syndrome that many of us belief does not need a cure in the traditional sense. But looking closer, this technique was developed to help with some of the health problems of those with Down Syndrome, including an increased risk of leukemia. Dr. David Russell explains...
Continue reading at LifeNews >>
Hat tip: Refections of a Paralytic
Thursday, October 25. 2012
Over the last year there have been many headlines about the debate in the United Kingdom on whether to create embryos with three genetic parents. Now the debate has come to America where scientists in Oregon have created embryos that have genetic material from two women and one man.
Why would scientists want to engineer an embryo with the genetic material from three people? Because they say it will “prevent” the inheritance of mitochondrial disease. Not all of our DNA that we inherit is in the nuclei of the egg and sperm that join at fertilization. In the cytoplasm of our mother’s egg are mitochondria. Mitochondria have their own DNA called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA only from our mother because sperm’s mitochondria are dumped at conception. There are genetic mutations that cause very serious disease found in mtDNA and a woman with a such a mutation cannot help but pass this mutation on to her children.
Oregon scientists created a dozen human embryos using a technique called “maternal spindle transfer” which removes the nucleus of an egg from a woman with mitochondrial disease and places it into a donor egg with normal mtDNA. That genetically modified egg is then fertilized with the father’s sperm and a genetically modified embryo is the result. An embryo with the genetic material from two women and one man.
This modification has implications not only for the embryo but for future generations that cannot help but inherit the modification making this what is called germ-line genetic engineering.
Continue reading at Life News >>
Tuesday, October 23. 2012
Transhumanists will tell you that the enhancements they propose for the human race will always be "optional." Freedom and choice are their mantra. Freedom to enhance ourselves and our offspring, or not. That is our choice.
In contrast, I have continually argued that transhumanism is by nature coercive. Once we begin to radically change our bodies and our genetics, everyone will have to follow suit or be left behind. Environmentalist Bill McKibben called it a"biological arms race" where no one will win and he points out that once we start upgrading our biology, some of us will naturally become outdated. Those "outdated" somebodies will be our children. McKibben warns parents, "The vision of one's child as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95 should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path."
Even Ray Kurzweil, transhumanist extraordinaire, will hint at the fact that enhancements mean that the unenhanced will be left with little or no say in society. He writes, "And to the extent that there will be debate about the desirability of such augmentation, it's easy to predict who will win, since those with enhanced intelligence will be far better debaters."
And yet the pro-enhancement crowd continue to stick to the freedom mantra. Until now. Julian Savulescu, who argues for moral enhancements, enhancements with drugs or genetic engineering that would make us all more socially conscientious, says these kinds of enhancements should not be optional. They are required of all of us otherwise the human race is doomed. Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, in Philosophy Now, are pushing enhancements not just for those who choose, but as an imperative for all:
Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue that artificial moral enhancement is now essential if humanity is to avoid catastrophe....The enhancement of mankind is NECESSARY. Education is not enough. We MUST use invasive techniques to mess with our biology to make us better animals. Forget changing the way we think...we must change the hardware with which we think. Once we accept radically changing our biology to solve problems, then making it compulsory isn't so far a leap.
When academics in their ivory towers speak, we lowly masses better listen. As Wesley J. Smith points out what begins as discussions among academics, sometimes becomes policy for the masses. There is no ambiguity here. The academics are saying enhance or perish. Not much of a choice.
Tuesday, October 16. 2012
As a former California girl, I am aware that my state of origin is full of contradictions like women who are on the Pill eating nothing but organically grown produce.
Back in 2004 Californians overwhelmingly voted with Prop 71 to publicly fund embryonic stem cell research with billions of dollars because they were told that cures would come. Monies from Prop 73 were going to go fund what everyone was calling the best, most promising line of research: therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning would create a cloned embryo through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and then destroy that embryo for his or her stem cells. Those stem cells, Californians were told, were going to cure disease. So Californians were cool (whether they realized it or not) with creating genetically-modified human clones (the clones would have mitochondrial DNA from the woman whose egg was used in the cloning process) for medicinal purposes.
Fast forward to 2012 and now California is voting on Prop 37. So while the idea of treating patients with stem cells from cloned embryos was acceptable to CA residents, eating food from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) is not.
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report>>
Friday, October 5. 2012
All of the cells in our body have all the same DNA in the nucleus. So what makes a heart cell a heart cell and a muscle cell a muscle cell? The different cell types in our bodies express different genes which give them their unique characteristics. Scientists are discovering that by introducing certain factors , they can reprogram a cell into a different kind of cell.
Researchers in Germany have taken brain cells, called a pericytes, and reprogrammed them into neurons that successfully carried electrical impulses. Neurons are those long funny-shaped cells that are the building blocks of the nervous system. This announcement that scientists are able to take existing cells in the brain and coax them to become neurons is terrific news for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s where neurons are lost at an accelerated rate.
Continue reading at LifeNews >>
Wednesday, October 3. 2012
Scientists in New Zealand have used cloning and other genetic engineering techniques to create Daisy, a cow that produces milk low in β-lactoglobulin protein which is the cause of some milk allergies. From Fox News:
People allergic to whey may be able to drink newly engineered milk without the unpleasant digestive consequences, according to research released Monday.But before those with a milk allergy rejoice, a lot of safety testing must be done. And they must ask themselves if they would drink the milk from a genetically-engineered cow, that strangely was born missing a tail:
Daisy was born unable to produce the major allergen in whey, but also born four weeks prematurely, and, to the surprise of researchers, without a tail.
Tuesday, August 14. 2012
Dengue Fever afflicts millions of people around the world. It is a virus that is spread by a specific mosquito, the Aedes aegypti. Dengue fever can develop into a more serious disease Dengue hemorrhagic fever which can be fatal. Aedes aegypti is native to Africa, but has spread to other areas including the southern United States.
Oxitec, a company in Oxford, has genetically engineered the Aedes aegypti mosquito so that any males that mate in the wild will produce non-viable offspring. They believe this modification will reduce the population of this particular disease carrying mosquito and unlike pesticide use, will leave other populations of native mosquitoes intact.
Here is a video about Oxitec and what they do:
Most Europeans see the United States as the land that embraces genetic engineering. So imagine the surprise when a British firm — Oxitec — ran into the buzz saw of public opinion trying to introduce a genetically modified (GM) mosquito in Key West to eradicate the dreaded Dengue virus.I have always mused on the irony of how many people are fine with genetic engineering techniques like therapeutic cloning or enhancements in humans, but are adamantly opposed to any cloning or genetic modification of plants and animals, even if there is a therapeutic intent, like with Oxitec's mosquito. I have never been able to wrap my head around this bizarre contradiction.
But Rejeski and Pauwels, I think have touched on the heart of it:
Decades of research on risk perceptions have shown that people differentiate between “voluntary” risks, which we willfully undertake, and “non-voluntary” risks, which are imposed upon us. People will smoke themselves to death while fighting against a nearby factory emitting pollutants.In other words, genetically modifying ourselves and our offspring by choice is one thing, but involuntarily sharing the environment with genetically modified organisms is something else entirely.
Interesting psychology there. It does not bode well for human genetic engineering when all of the concerns about safety seem to be reserved for modifying plants and animals and "choice" is the reigning factor in humans.
Monday, July 23. 2012
I love the Olympics, especially the Summer Games. I cannot wait for the ultimate in human sporting events. The test of speed, strength, endurance and most importantly, will. In my fantasies, I have always been an elite athlete instead of what I really am: a hamster on the treadmill at my local gym.
And yet hanging over every Olympic games is the shadow of enhancements. I was reminded of all of the possibilities available to athletes to unfairly enhance themselves to the medal podium by this Nature piece "Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes". Dedicated to enhancements available now and in the future, this article may make it seem to the reader like human enhancements are inevitable. It even mentions the old, fallacious, "everybody's doing it" argument made by many:
But others argue that enhancers have become so prevalent that the only realistic option is for the sporting authorities to let athletes use what they want, as long as they do it safely.Such enhancements would create a whole new set of sports:
According to [Hugh Herr, a biomechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], performance-enhancing technologies will advance to a point at which they will not only extend human limits, they will demand an Olympics all of their own. “For each one there will be a new sport — power running, and power swimming, and power climbing,” projects Herr.And yet lost in the talk of the many possible enhancements that could make athletes stronger and faster is the the whole point of sport. What good is it to go faster or be stronger if these are measures of upgrades instead of dedication and perseverance?
Bill McKibben, in his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, thinks that "Sport is the canary in a miner's cage." If athletes engineer themselves to be superhuman, "It's not the personal challenge that will disappear. It's the personal."
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Monday, July 2. 2012
Many people are talking about Michael Hanlon's piece in the Daily Mail about the first genetically modified babies being born. I want to discuss it because everything is not exactly how it seems.
Hanlon's undated piece discusses a technique IVF doctors have used to "rejuvenate" an infertile woman's eggs by injecting the cytoplasm of another woman's healthy egg. Factors inside the cytoplasm help the infertile woman's egg in fertilization. When doctors injected the cytoplasm of the healthy egg, it contained mitochondria from the donor egg. Those mitochondria have DNA from the woman who donated that egg. So the after that hybrid egg is fertilized, the resulting embryo has the DNA from 1 man, and 2 women. A genetic modification that any girl would pass onto her offspring since mitochondria are inherited from the mother only. The Daily Mail article reads:
The world's first genetically modified humans have been created, it was revealed last night.A couple of readers have e-mailed this article to me so I went to the journal of Human Reproduction looking for the latest issue and found nothing from Jacques Cohen. I then found that Dr. Cohen is the Laboratory Director at ART Institute of Washington at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Apparently he left Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas and works for a U.S. military hospital. (A fact that I find very disturbing.)
I scratched my head for a minute and dug deeper and think I have found the original paper. It was from 2001, not 2012. The technique is called "cytoplasmic transfer." I did not start blogging until 2005, so I had no idea that this genetic engineering of embryos took place. I then found an in depth report in the Washington Monthly on the issue. Sharon Brownlee explains how the technique raised concerns at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and it seems they put a stop to cytoplasmic transfer in the United States:
In the mid-1990s, embryologist Jacques Cohen pioneered a promising new technique for helping infertile women have children. His technique, known as cytoplasmic transfer, was intended to "rescue" the eggs of infertile women who had undergone repeated, unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization, or IVF. It involved injecting the cytoplasm found inside the eggs of a fertile donor, into the patient's eggs.So the children born using cytoplasmic transfer are indeed "genetically modified" but this is not a new development as the Daily Mail report suggests. Since it is not dated, I think the article came out in 2001 but is just making the rounds of the Internet now. So while still unethical, this is not a new technology that will be taking off as the new rage in infertility treatments.
In fact, I could not find any information on who offers this technique or where. When asked, in 2009, where cytoplasmic transfer is legal, Dr. John David Gordon, the Co-Director of Dominion Fertility at The George Washington University and an expert that has been answering questions on high tech IVF for more than ten years, replied, "I honestly have no idea..."
We should still be concerned, since there are questions about the FDA's authority to regulate the fertility industry in this regard. Which means it is even more critical that the United States join a host of other countries that have legally banned any germ-line genetic modifications and cloning in humans.
As the case of cytoplasmic transfer shows, scientists and doctors in the fertility industry will do anything that they are allowed to by law, even genetically modify embryos without real evidence that it is safe.
Thursday, June 14. 2012
A British ethics committee has recommended going forward with creating human embryos with 3 genetic parents. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that considers issues in biotechnology and medicine, has found the genetic engineering technique is ethical and should move forward even though the technique is currently against the law in the United Kingdom.
Why would doctors want to engineer an embryo with the genetic material from 3 people? Because, it will “prevent” the inheritance of mitochondrial disease. Not all of our DNA that we inherit is in the nuclei of the egg and sperm that join at fertilization. In the cytoplasm of our mother’s egg are mitochondria. Mitochondria have their own DNA called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA only from our mother because sperm’s mitochondria are dumped at conception. There are genetic mutations that cause very serious disease found in mtDNA and a woman with a such a mutation cannot help but pass this mutation on to her children.
This is where the three parent embryos come in.
There are two different ways to approach the making of a embryo with 3 genetic parents. In the first method, called pronuclear transfer, doctors would take the nucleus out of an embryo that had a mutation in his or her mtDNA and put it into an embryo whose mtDNA was normal, after removing the nucleus of that embryo of course. (For an illustration of this method click here.) The alternative method, called maternal spindle transfer, would be to remove the nucleus of an egg from a woman with mitochondrial disease, place it into a donor egg with normal mtDNA (after the nucleus of that egg was removed) and then fertilize the engineered egg with sperm. (The Nuffield Council has a description and current state of research for both pronuclear transfer and maternal spindle transfer.) In either technique, the result is an embryo with the nuclear DNA from its mother and father and the mtDNA from another woman.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has determined that either technique would be ethical. The problem is that this kind of genetic engineering would be inherited not just by the child produced, but also by every generation after.
Continue Reading at LifeNews.com >>
Tuesday, May 15. 2012
I have to confess that I am a bit disheartened. I find that my fellow Catholics are having trouble really connecting with the Church's teaching regarding genetic engineering. Some very smart, thoughtful and faithful Catholics are having difficulty with the distinction between gene therapy, which is genetic engineering to fix a genetic pathology, and genetic enhancement which is genetic engineering to an otherwise healthy person to make them super-human in strength, intelligence, or infused with non-human traits like night vision or glow-in-the-dark skin.
I think when we focus on the minutia of every little nuance of every possibility we lose sight of the greater picture. Keeping genetic engineering in the realm of therapy (which is exactly where it currently resides), we can prevent some truly horrifying and unnatural modifications of the human genome. We will prevent the mixing of human and animal DNA and the tinkering with otherwise healthy offspring without their consent. Two things that clearly fall in the "immoral" box.
Just remember that science and academia are already toying with enhancements. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, $773,000 to develop standards for tests on human subjects in genetic-enhancement research. Research that would take otherwise normal humans and make them smarter, stronger or better-looking. If the existing human-trial standards cannot meet the ethical conditions needed for genetic-enhancement research, Mehlman has been asked to recommend changes.
Friday, May 4. 2012
My latest piece introducing National Catholic Register readers to Church teaching on human genetic engineering:
Human genetic engineering has always been the stuff of science-fiction novels and blockbuster Hollywood films. Except that it is no longer confined to books and movies.
Scientists and doctors are already attempting to genetically alter human beings and our cells. And whether you realize it or not, you and your children are being bombarded in popular media with mixed messages on the ethics surrounding human genetic engineering.
So what does the Church say about the genetic engineering of humans?
The majority of Catholics would likely say that the Church opposes any genetic modification in humans. But that is not what our Church teaches. Actually, the Church does support human genetic engineering; it just has to be the right kind.
Surprised? Most Catholics probably are.
Monday, February 6. 2012
The 3-genetic parent embryo is back in the news. This time it is Australia that wants to attempt to genetically engineer a human embryo to have 3 genetic parents.
Why would scientists want to engineer an embryo with the genetic material from 3 people? To "prevent" the inheritance of mitochondrial disease. Not all of our DNA that we inherit is in the nuclei of the egg and sperm that join at fertilization. In the cytoplasm of our mother's egg are mitochondria. Mitochondria have their own DNA called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA only from our mother because sperm's mitochondria are dumped at conception. There are genetic mutations that cause disease in mtDNA and a woman with a such a mutation cannot help but pass this mutation on to her children.
This is where the three parent embryos come in. Here is how it works. Scientists took the nucleus out of an embryo had a mutation in its mtDNA and put it into an embryo whose mtDNA was normal, after removing the nucleus of that embryo of course. The result is one embryo with the nuclear DNA from its mother and father and the mtDNA from another embryo and its mother. Confused? Here is a simplified diagram that I made from the one in the Nature paper. (A zygote is the single celled embryo that results from fertilization.)
So scientists created 2 embryos with IVF, destroyed one human embryo by removing its nuclear DNA and added the DNA from the other human embryo to make a third recombinant embryo with the mtDNA from one woman and the nuclear DNA from another woman and a man.
In Australia it is now illegal to transfer embryos created by techniques other than the fertilization of a human egg with human sperm into a womb. That law is there to prevent scientists from cloning embryos or genetically engineering embryos with extra human or animal DNA and then gestating them to see what happens. And just as in the UK, which has a similar law, Australian scientists are calling for an exception to this law to allow this 3 parent technique to move forward.
And while curing genetic disease with gene therapy is a laudable goal, the Catholic Church teaching is clear that this is not the way to do it. We cannot sacrifice two embryos to make a healthy third. We Catholics could embrace such a genetic therapy to cure mitochondrial disease if life did not need to be created, manipulated and destroyed in a dish. When the day comes that we can fix this without creating and destroying life in a lab, we Catholics can jump on that genetic engineering train.
And with the announcement that with DNA sequencing, mitochondrial diseases can now be easily identified and diagnosed, it is imperative that we object to this approach to "curing" mitochondrial disease. We must insist that researchers look into alternative ways like somatic gene therapy to help those with mitochondrial disease now and not just focus on making sure no one with mitochondrial disease is born.
Tuesday, November 29. 2011
Chronic pain is a major problem for many and some pain does not respond to traditional pain medications or some people cannot tolerate the side effects. The culture of death has their solution for those suffering from chronic intractable pain: assisted suicide. Researchers at the University of Michigan have another more hopeful approach: gene therapy. They have engineered a herpes virus to deliver the gene that encodes for a natural pain killer. This virus migrates to the nerves and makes the nerve cells produce the pain killer for a month to six weeks. Researchers think they can extend this effect for up to 6 months. From The Guardian:
Doctors in the US have begun a clinical trial of a gene therapy that uses the body's natural painkillers to bring relief to patients who cannot be helped with conventional drugs. They hope that a single injection could provide relief for up to six months in people whose pain is so severe that morphine and other frontline drugs have little effect or cannot be used because of their side-effects.This is fantastic news and another example of ethical genetic engineering. Of course the trial could not possibly progress fast enough for those suffering from chronic pain right now. Until novel treatments such as these are available to all, those with chronic pain can be their own advocate. Dr. Eric Chevlan and Wesley J. Smith have written a book about how to get proper pain control called Power Over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need. From cancer to headaches, it is a valuable resource for anyone who struggles with chronic pain.
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