Genetic Engineering For All: The Last Great Frontier of Human Freedom
[Editor's Note: This op/ed appears in response to January's Big Moral Question: "Where should we draw a line, if any, between the use of gene editing for the prevention and treatment of disease, and for cosmetic enhancement?" Currently, it is illegal to develop human trials for the latter in the U.S.]
Homo sapien: a bipedal primate that is thought to be the only animal to construct a moral code. Despite the genetic differences between members of our species being less than 1 percent, we come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There is no normal for human genetics.
I believe genetic freedom is the most basic human right we all should have.
One DNA base change here, another there brings us humans with light skin, red hair and big muscles. Want to be an NBA All-Star? Your genes are by far the largest determinant of your height and well, there has never been an All-Star under 5'9". Sexual reproduction makes it so that our physical traits seem more a pinch of this and a dash of that than some precise architectural masterpiece. For the most part we have no control over whether we or our children will be the next Cristiano Ronaldo or are born with a debilitating disease--unless we use genetic engineering.
Anywhere from 64% in the US to over 82% of people in China support genetic modification of individuals to help treat diseases. I imagine that number will only increase as people become more familiar with the technology and I don't think most people need convincing that genetic modification for medical treatment is a good thing. In fact, most modern drugs are genetic regulation on a fundamental level. But cosmetic genetic modification is far more controversial with only 39% of people in the US finding it agreeable. Far fewer people support modifying the genes of babies before they are born. My question is: Where does one draw a line between cosmetic and medical genetic changes?
Modifying the genetics of individuals for medical reasons started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when scientists reprogrammed viruses so that instead of causing harm when they infected people, they changed the genetics of their cells. Much has changed and and despite the success of many gene therapy trials, people are still afraid. Perhaps because of concerns over safety, but gene therapies have been tested in over 2000 clinical trials in hundreds of thousands of people. So what are we so afraid of? I asked myself that same question in 2016 and could not find a basis for the fear and so performed the first successfully cosmetic human genetic modification by putting a jellyfish gene in my skin. The experiment was simple, the monetary cost minimal, and though my skin didn't fluoresce like a jellyfish, DNA testing showed it worked and the experiment showed me what was possible.
People are afraid because we are on the cusp of the human race changing as we know it. But isn't that change all we have been striving for?
In late 2017, I wanted to explore bigger cosmetic changes, so I did another genetic experiment on myself; I injected myself with a CRISPR/Cas9 system meant to modify myostatin, a gene responsible for muscle growth and fat loss. I didn't do it because I wanted bigger muscles but because the myostatin gene is a well-studied target that has been modified in many mammals using CRISPR. I feel a responsibility to try and push boundaries that scientists in universities and large corporations can't because of committees, regulations and social acceptability. When this cutting-edge technique was tried for the first time, it wasn't in an expensive lab and it didn't cost millions of dollars. It was done by me, prepared in my home lab, and the cost of this cosmetic treatment was under $500.
Home genetic engineering lab kits like this are sold by Zayner's company for less than $2000.
I have had many people call me crazy and worse, but they don't understand that I've undertaken these experiments with much thought and hesitation. Experimenting on oneself isn't fun; it is an unfortunate situation to be in as a Ph.D. scientist who less than two years ago was fulfilling a prestigious synthetic biology fellowship at NASA. The data points to the experiment being relatively safe, and similar experimental protocols have had success, so why wait? When so much is at stake, we need to show people what is possible so that one day we all can have genetic freedom.
Zayner's arm after attempting the first CRISPR injection showed little immune response; a small red dot in the upper left forearm can be seen at the injection site.
People are afraid because we are on the cusp of the human race changing as we know it. But isn't that change all we have been striving for yet unable to obtain? Have too much or too little hair? There is a non-gene therapy treatment for that. Want to change your appearance? The global cosmetic surgery market is over $15 billion. Tattoos, dyed hair and piercings abound. We sculpt our appearance by exercise, make-up, drugs, chemicals and invasive surgeries. We try so hard to fight against our genetics in every way except genetic modification.
Being human means freedom to be who we want to be. And at the moment, no one gets to choose their genetics. Instead, nature plays a probabilistic role in the most primitive genetic engineering experiment of sexual reproduction. This dice roll can sometimes end in tragedy. Fortunately, in my case I was born with the genetics of a healthy individual. Still, I push for everyone and though my newest genetic modification experiment is ongoing, even if it doesn't work, it is only a matter of time until it does in someone.
If you prevent someone like me from changing my genetics, where do you draw the line? Only people who can't walk can get genetic modification? Only people who can't run? Only people who are predisposed to skin cancer? Don't we all deserve a choice or to give parents better ones? I believe genetic freedom is the most basic human right we all should have. We no longer need to be slaves to genetics so let's break those bonds and embrace the change brought about by allowing human genetic engineering for all no matter the reason.
[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite perspective: "Hacking Your Own Genes: A Recipe for Disaster." Then follow LeapsMag on social media to share your opinion.]
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”