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CRISPR Opportunities … For What? And For Whom?

Posted by Pete Shanks on December 4th, 2014

Company logos

Money and deals are flowing into the companies founded on CRISPR technology, which promises to enable the precise editing of genomes.

CRISPR/Cas9 stands for “clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat” and an associated protein (not always mentioned). A brief video introduction from UC Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI) gives an overview of the editing process. A webinar put on by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, featuring Harvard professors George Church and Feng Zhang, gives more detail.

The first prominent company intending to exploit this technology was Editas, which was founded by five of the leading scientists in the field. Editas recently announced licensing deals with Massachusetts General Hospital, Duke University, Harvard University, and the Broad Institute, all for intellectual property related to the use of CRISPR/Cas9 as well as TALEN genome-editing technologies [press release pdfs, 1, 2, 3].

Bio-It World has more about the implications of these deals for prospects of both ex vivo and in vivo drug development, and quotes CEO Katrine Bosley as saying they are "at least a couple years from the clinic." In a press release, Bosley said:

"We all share the goal of translating this cutting-edge science into breakthrough medicines for people with genetically-driven diseases."

Generally, Editas is looking to create "robust medicines" that will enable "the prevention and treatment of human or animal disease, and broad agricultural use."

This superficially bland ambition has some worrying overtones. One major concern is the apparent assumption that genomics can reliably predict disease in time to prevent it, which is only true of a small number of genetic disorders. Yet some of those most deeply involved in the research are given to ambitious speculation about, for instance, engineering people — to be virus-proof, or to have enhanced traits of various kinds, which would also be inheritable. The implications of this are profound.

One of the five co-founders of Editas, which is based in Cambridge, MA, was Jennifer Doudna, the UC Berkeley professor who first developed CRISPR technology, working with Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is now based in Germany. The Boston Globe suggests that they are "shoo-ins for a Nobel Prize," and in November they each won a "Breakthrough Award" worth $3 million, from various Silicon Valley billionaires including Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergei Brin and others. However, Doudna is no longer listed as one of the company's Scientific Advisors.

Commercially, Doudna seems to be focused on Berkeley-based Caribou Biosciences, whose motto is "engineering any genome, at any site, in any way." Charpentier co-founded CRISPR Therapeutics, with offices in Basel and London, financed by Versant Ventures, and focused on "developing cures for human genetic diseases."

Caribou recently announced the co-founding, with Atlas Venture, of Intellia Therapeutics, which is based in Cambridge, MA. Intellia has raised $15 million [pdf] in a financing round led by Atlas Venture and Novartis, and seems to be positioning itself as providing a drug development platform. Caribou will also "apply its technologies toward the development of new therapeutics in the anti-microbial and animal health spaces."

There seems to be some serious jockeying for position here. The patent situation may become complex — Broad has been awarded one important patent, but other applications remain on file, and appeals might overturn the Broad decision. (See this article from MIT Technology Review.) Quite how the business side shakes out is hard to predict.

Meanwhile the general hype continues: Scientific American calls CRISPR the top "world-changing idea" for 2014, and is asking [mostly behind a paywall]:

Is the Gene-Editing Revolution Finally Here?

MIT Technology Review [free registration required] named CRISPR the #1 "breakthrough technology" of the year. (The "smartest company" title they gave to Illumina.)

But what, exactly, are these companies going to do with the technology? Will it involve germline alterations of the human genome? Doudna is "uncomfortable" with that idea, and has acknowledged that there is a "dark side," especially if the technique were to be "used for trivial or even harmful uses." But that's about as much caution as you'll find among these enthusiasts.

For a corrective, see a new paper by Motoko Araki and Tetsuya Ishii on the "International regulatory landscape and integration of corrective genome editing into in vitro fertilization." They survey the status of genome editing, note how it could be integrated with IVF, and "address some ethical and social issues that would be raised when each country considers whether genome editing-mediated germline gene correction for preventive medicine should be permitted."

As investment and futuristic visions rush ahead, understanding and awareness of what's at stake are trailing. A biopolitical awakening is urgently on the agenda.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The Vagina Bio-Hack That Wasn’t: How Two “Startup Bros” Twisted and Took Credit for a Young Woman’s Company

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 25th, 2014

Untitled Document

Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome, of biotech start-ups Cambrian Genomics and Personalized Probiotics, announced at last week’s DEMO conference, "New Tech Solving Big Problems," that they had created a bio-hack to make women’s vaginas smell like peaches.

Yup, you read that right; these “startup bros” think a vagina that doesn’t smell like a peach is a Big Problem to be solved.    

Following on the heels of Heinz’s promise to make dog poop smell like bananas, the duo led their audience to believe they had genetically engineered a probiotic supplement using Heinz’s DNA laser-printing technology in order to bring the world the never-awaited product, “Sweet Peach.”

But don’t worry; they assured incredulous journalists that there would be “practical benefits” too such as preventing yeast infections, and even “loftier” ones about “personal empowerment,” because controlling the way you smell could help “connect you to yourself in a better way."

Obviously, women would totally have equality and self-acceptance if only they smelled like peaches.

These two have clearly been spending too much time around their lasers because they seem to think vaginas are “less complicated” and “stable,” with “only one interference per month." In a hilarious commentary at Gawker, Nitasha Tiku pointed out that someone “may want to tell them about vaginal intercourse.” Or, maybe they need to know that most people have moved on from seeing the vagina as some kind of “an absence” to realize it’s a highly complicated organ, with a lot more purpose than providing pleasure for men.

Last week, it would have been easy to leave it here: Oh look, more computer nerds that have to use Weird Science to interact with the women of their dreams! But this particular example of the actual Big Problem of sexism and misogyny in the tech industry (1, 2, 3, 4…) goes even further.

It turns out that Heinz and Gome did not even create Sweet Peach, though they were happy to take credit, while credit was being given. The CEO and founder of Sweet Peach is actually a 20-year-old woman, Audrey Hutchinson, whom they failed entirely to mention either in their presentation or in their subsequent interviews. Heinz owns just 10 percent of the equity of her company; meanwhile Gome has no connection at all (though apparently making vaginas smell like food is a key interest of his).

Hutchinson, who was the recipient of the Distinguished Scientist scholarship at Bard before pursuing her company, is a self-described “ultrafeminist” who wanted to develop a means for women to take control of their own reproductive health. She has now explained that “Sweet Peach” was never intended to refer to a scent at all, but to the fact that peaches have been a literary symbol for vaginas for hundreds of years. The point of the company is to provide individualized probiotic supplements for women based upon an analysis of their vaginal microbiome in order to promote optimal health.  In Hutchinson’s own words, "A vagina should smell like a vagina, and anyone who doesn't think that doesn't deserve to be near one."

Heinz did not consult with Hutchinson before he chose to debut, and mischaracterize, her product. She told Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici, "I'm obviously sort of appalled that it's been misconstrued like this because it was never the point of my company. I don't want to apologize for [Austen], but at the same time I want to apologize to every woman in the world who's heard about this and wants my head on a stake."

No one should hold their breath for a real apology from Heinz. Even after his own lawyer informed him that “you look like Bill Cosby right now,” he responded that all this media attention “[is] great for Audrey, but for me, I did lose a lot of money today."

He really just doesn’t get it.

But you don’t have to listen to Heinz for long to realize he doesn’t think the smell of women is all that’s wrong with us. His visions for “human perfection” are far-reaching, and he believes technology will soon catch up. He told CNN’s Morgan Spurlock, “We’re literally printing life” and “we make the DNA to fix the mistake. You can take out what’s existing and put in what you want.”

This particular brand of unperturbed arrogance seems to be proliferating in the tech industry. Writing in The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi really just nailed it:

[It reflects] the male-dominated, megalomaniac conviction that a complex world can be boiled down to a series of discrete problems to be solved via algorithms, flowcharts, “culture” and an answer that it’s all in the name of “progress”…

There is a crusader-like zeal to the way in which startup types talk about how they plan to change the world, how they plan to hack the future and disrupt the present – “inspiring”, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it this week, “the public at large”. There is a sense that all technological advancements are positive advancements and that while to err is human, to code is divine. (The current controversy around Uber’s internal data-mining feature, referred to within the company as “God View”, is a case in point.) But innovation is only really meaningful if it contributes to a more equitable society – and much of what Silicon Valley terms “disruption” is simply a bleeping, blorping version of the same social status quo.

There’s nothing inspiring or empowering about two male CEOs taking credit for a young woman’s work while twisting the entire purpose from being about reproductive health to being little more than a joke. But a 20-year-old ultrafeminist scientist who’s about to launch her own company? That will be something to watch.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Pigs to People

Posted by Pete Shanks on November 24th, 2014

A pig

In his usual understated and modest way, the media-savvy scientist/entrepreneur Craig Venter planted a seed that grew into a thoroughly misleading headline in the San Jose Mercury News:

Synthetic biologist aims to create pig with human lungs

Not exactly. The pig would have pig lungs, but with some tweaks that would reduce at least the initial rejection of the organ by a human recipient's immune system. Sounded good, though!

Previous reports indicated that Venter's Synthetic Genomics is working on this project with Lung Biotechnology Inc, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics, which is run by the noted transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. This is what Venter was quoted as saying at SynBioBeta 2014:

"We are re-engineering the pig, changing its genetic code. If we succeed with rewriting the pig genome, we will have replacement organs for those who need them."

That is not actually a novel idea. Lord Robert Winston, best known as a British fertility expert, explained the rationale to the London Telegraph in September 2008:

"Pigs' organs are the right size for human transplantation, and they work similarly to human organs. Of course this raises a moral problem, but it is much more ethical to use a pig to save a human life than to use it for relatively unnecessary meat eating."

Winston was frustrated by British and EU regulations ("bureaucracy" and undefined "red tape"), and moved his company Atazoa to Missouri to continue the work. He was confident in 2008 that "we can produce transplantable organs within two or three years … Within 10 years we think they could be available for hospitals." The goal was "humanised hearts, lungs or livers" and the process would be to modify sperm and breed the pigs to order. (Venter plans to adjust cells, which Lung Technologies will then use to create clones.)

Winston's transplant pigs were expected to cost £3 million (roughly $5 million), which perhaps explains the attraction. His Register of Interests at the House of Lords still shows him as a Director of Atazoa, but it now seems to have offices in Knightsbridge, London and has net liabilities of £2.6 million.

Winston estimated that only six genes would need to be altered; Venter has reduced that to five, in an experiment that, he says, created lungs that survived for a year in baboons. (Another team has created pig hearts that survived in baboons for a year, albeit not working as such but "grafted into the abdomen of an otherwise healthy baboon.")

Aside from the rejection problem, which is likely to remain substantial, there is the tricky matter that pigs can suffer from over 25 diseases that can infect humans, and new pig viruses (remember swine flu?) keep being discovered.

Ah, but synthetic biology has an answer for that: Modify people to be virus-proof!

Then the modified people can take organs from the modified pigs and … take lots of expensive drugs for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a winner.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Breaking from our Eugenic Past

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 13th, 2014

In an historic recognition of the horrors of the United States’ state-sponsored eugenics programs during the twentieth century, North Carolina has now begun sending compensation payments to some of its 7,000 sterilization victims. Unfortunately, as NPR has covered, the new policy will lose some people through bureaucratic cracks.

Nonetheless, the importance of this moment for those who have been fighting for recognition of this abuse of reproductive justice and human rights cannot be overstated. It has been a long struggle to get to this point.

Twentieth-century eugenics in the US is often systematically ignored. This year, some important efforts have shed light on how it was that many of the most respected members of society promoted these (profoundly discriminatory) practices. New York University’s new exhibit, Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, which will run until March, is an important one.

The recognition of this history is timely because advances in genetic and reproductive technologies will put increasingly more people in the position of having to wrestle with questions about the kind of child they want – and don’t want – to bring into the world. For example, the start-up company GenePeeks brings us what enthusiasts call “virtual eugenics” by encouraging “best matches” of gametes.

Forbes ran an article over the weekend called “Could Genomics Revive The Eugenics Movement?” Its short answer was, yes, and given our history, we should be really concerned.

Of course, some people would rather ignore these connections. In a twist of particularly cruel irony, Jon Entine published a piece in The Huffington Post called “Let's (Cautiously) Celebrate the `New Eugenics’” on the exact same day that the eugenic victims of North Carolina were finally beginning to be compensated for their loss.

Entine’s argument is along the lines that individual choices absolve us of eugenic implications. But one only need look at the 163 million missing girls in Asia or the over 90% termination rate following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, to see that this is naïve. Choices about families can never be strictly individual; we are all subject to social and political realities.

Now is not the time to celebrate eugenics (cautiously or otherwise), but to finally learn about the toll that our pseudoscientific eugenic laws had on people’s lives and on society, so that we are not endlessly condemned to repetition.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:



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