Biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov is famous—and controversial--in the world of cutting-edge fertility treatments. A decade ago, he pioneered mitochondrial replacement therapy, paving the way for the world's first "three-parent" babies to be born free of a devastating inherited disease.
He sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary.
In 2017, he shocked the world again when his group at Oregon Health and Science University became the first to repair a genetic mutation causing heart disease in dozens of human embryos. The embryos were later destroyed a part of the experiment; current policy in the U.S. prohibits such research from moving into clinical trials.
And that policy doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon, despite recent political wavering. Last month, a House subcommittee dropped the ban that has blocked the Food and Drug Administration since 2015 from considering any clinical trials of genetically altered embryos intended to create a baby. The move raised the hopes of supporters who want to see such research move forward and angered critics who feel that the science is getting ahead of the ethics. But yesterday, a House committee decided to restore the ban on gene-edited babies after all.
As for Mitalipov, he told leapsmag that he sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What motivates you to pursue this line of research, even though it is highly controversial?
It's my expertise, I'm an embryologist. We study early development in humans -- sperm, egg, and the first five days of development -- and try to use our knowledge to treat human diseases, particularly in that early stage. This is how IVF started, as a treatment for infertility. It's a very successful cell therapy treatment, with millions of children born. [Now the idea is] to actually to use this IVF platform not as much to treat infertility, but also to treat heritable genetic diseases, because this is a very important stage when gametes from either dad or mom will transmit mutations. This is the bottleneck where we could actually interfere and repair that mutation.
Many people are hesitant to support embryo editing because of "designer babies," yet polls do show that Americans are more open to embryo editing for the purpose of disease prevention. Where should society draw a line?
Yeah, I agree with most Americans that we don't have to edit -- meaning you could make all kind of changes. Instead we do gene repair, which is a therapeutic application.
Gene repair is quite different than gene editing. It involves [focusing on] already known disease-causing mutations and how we can turn them back to normal.
Thousands of gene mutations cause human diseases, like Crohn's, for example, or mutations causing cancer, heart disease. These are well-described, well-studied cause-and-effect diseases and we need to do something about it because otherwise it's impossible to treat once the mutation is already passed to a child.
Early intervention is the best in any disease, but in genetics, "early" means you have to do it at the time of fertilization. That's when we are dealing with one copy of the mutation or maybe two, versus when you have a whole body with billions of cells in solid tissues that we cannot really access and target. So this is the most efficient way of preventing thousands and thousands of genetic diseases. I understand that we have to make sure that it's very safe, of course, and efficient as well. But at the same time, I think this is the future. We have to work toward developing these technologies.
"If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough."
What's your opinion of Dr. He Jiankui and the Chinese CRISPR'ed babies?
This is a case where he was doing gene editing, not gene repair. He hasn't corrected anything, he induced a mutation to normal human genes, hoping that this would somehow confer resistance to HIV, which is still unclear.
I think such straightforward editing is unacceptable specifically for human embryos. He's approach has also never been tested in an animal model. That's why the reaction from the public and scientists was very negative, because this is the case where the doctor does this without any expertise in this area, without knowing probably much about what he is doing, and he acquired it without any oversights, which is troubling. And of course, it negatively affects the legitimate research that is going on in some labs.
What might the future of embryo gene therapy look like?
Hopefully in 10 years from now, thousands and thousands of families that know they carry germline mutations…could go through IVF and we would correct it, and they could have healthy children.
Right now, we have some tools. We cannot correct, but we can select. So what happens is the parents become pregnant and then at about three months along, we can biopsy the amniotic fluid and say, "Hey unfortunately you passed on this mutation." And that means this child, if it's born, will be affected, so we give parents a choice of terminating the pregnancy.
Or we could do it much earlier, so parents go to the IVF clinic where we retrieve about ten eggs, after stimulating a woman's ovaries. Each of them will be fertilized so we have ten embryos that develop. We have a five-day window where we can keep them in the lab. And we basically reap a few cells, we do a biopsy from each of these ten, and we say, "Hey embryo number 1 and number 4 are not mutant, but the others are."
Then we can take these two and the other eight usually will be thrown away. That's the technology that we have now. Some ethicists argue on religious grounds that we have this selection technology available, so why do we need germline gene therapy [i.e. repairing the disease-causing mutations in an embryo]?
I don't understand the moral argument there, because all the available technology is based on selective destruction of the embryo.
With [IVF gene therapy], we will take ten embryos and every embryo we'll make healthy because we can get rid of the mutations. How could embryo destruction be morally superior?
How long do you think it will take for this technology to be available to prospective parents?
It depends how many legitimate labs with expertise can get into this field and resolve all the scientific questions. If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough.
So far, I think that my lab is the only one legitimately working on it. But we would like five, 10, maybe 100 labs in this country and Europe really working. Because we have scientific challenges that we need to resolve before we could say, "Hey now we know how to correct [a given mutation] and now this could be efficient, and there are no side effects or very little." And then we could say, "Okay, I think we've done everything we could in petri dishes and in animals, and now we are ready to transplant this embryo in a patient and see what happens."
"There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, 'Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away.'"
Does banning emerging technology actually work?
Banning it usually means it will leak out to a gray area where there's no regulation and many private IVF clinics will just use it while it is still premature. So I think we have to regulate the clinical testing. There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, "Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away." That's not going to happen.
If this technology does become feasible and legal in the future, do you think that more and more couples will choose IVF and gene therapy versus the natural method of rolling the dice?
As sequencing technology is becoming available, like 23andMe, more and more parents will realize what kind of mutations they carry. And if your spouse carries the same mutation on the same locus, now you have very high chance of transmitting it. Most of the time today, we find out these families carry it once they have one or two children with that condition.
Of course, parents can just do it naturally in the bedroom and have a chance of transmitting or not transmitting mutations, but hopefully eventually we can say, "Hey, because of your condition, you don't want to play this Russian Roulette. Let's just do IVF." And hopefully the government will cover that kind of treatment because right now IVF is not covered in most states. And we do this therapy and then they have a healthy child.
We have 10,000 different mutations in the human population. That means probably billions of people carry mutations. And unless they go through this gene therapy through IVF, they will keep transmitting them. And we're going to keep having millions and millions of children with diseases. We have to do something about it.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.