Terror. Error. Success. These are the three outcomes that ethicists evaluating a new technology should fear. The possibility that a breakthrough might be used maliciously. The possibility that newly empowered scientists might make a catastrophic mistake. And the possibility that a technology will be so successful that it will change how we live in ways that we can only guess—and that we may not want.
These tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before.
It was true for the scientists behind the Manhattan Project, who bequeathed a fear of nuclear terror and nuclear error, even as global security is ultimately defined by these weapons of mass destruction. It was true for the developers of the automobile, whose invention has been weaponized by terrorists and kills 3,400 people by accident each day, even as the more than 1 billion cars on the road today have utterly reshaped where we live and how we move. And it is true for the researchers behind the revolution in gene editing and writing.
Put simply, these tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before. Editing techniques like CRISPR enable exact genetic repairs through a simple cut and paste of DNA, while synthetic biologists aim to redo entire genomes through the writing and substitution of synthetic genes. The technologies are complementary, and they herald an era when the book of life will be not just readable, but rewritable. Food crops, endangered animals, even the human body itself—all will eventually be programmable.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls as the negative images of those same benefits.
Terror is the most straightforward. States have sought to use biology as a weapon at least since invading armies flung the corpses of plague victims into besieged castles. The 1975 biological weapons convention banned—with general success—the research and production of offensive bioweapons, though a handful of lone terrorists and groups like the Oregon-based Rajneeshee cult have still carried out limited bioweapon attacks. Those incidents ultimately caused little death and damage, in part because medical science is mostly capable of defending us from those pathogens that are most easily weaponized. But gene editing and writing offers the chance to engineer germs that could be far more effective than anything nature could develop. Imagine a virus that combines the lethality of Ebola with the transmissibility of the common cold—and in the new world of biology, if you can imagine something, you will eventually be able to create it.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls.
That's one reason why James Clapper, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, added gene editing to the list of threats posed by "weapons of mass destruction and proliferation" in 2016. But these new tools aren't merely dangerous in the wrong hands—they can also be dangerous in the right hands. The list of labs accidents involving lethal bugs is much longer than you'd want to know, at least if you're the sort of person who likes to sleep at night. The U.S. recently lifted a ban on research that works to make existing pathogens, like the H5N1 avian flu virus, more virulent and transmissible, often using new technologies like gene editing. Such work can help medicine better prepare for what nature might throw at us, but it could also make the consequences of a lab error far more catastrophic. There's also the possibility that the use of gene editing and writing in nature—say, by CRISPRing disease-carrying mosquitoes to make them sterile—could backfire in some unforeseen way. Add in the fact that the techniques behind gene editing and writing are becoming simpler and more automated with every year, and eventually millions of people will be capable—through terror or error—of unleashing something awful on the world.
The good news is that both the government and the researchers driving these technologies are increasingly aware of the risks of bioterror and error. One government program, the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT), provides funding for scientists to scan genetic data looking for the "accidental or intentional creation of a biological threat." Those in the biotech industry know to keep an eye out for suspicious orders—say, a new customer who orders part of the sequence of the Ebola or smallpox virus. "With every invention there is a good use and a bad use," Emily Leproust, the CEO of the commercial DNA synthesis startup Twist Bioscience, said in a recent interview. "What we try hard to do is put in place as many systems as we can to maximize the good stuff, and minimize any negative impact."
But the greatest ethical challenges in gene editing and writing will arise not from malevolence or mistakes, but from success. Through a new technology called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), scientists are learning how to turn adult human cells like a piece of skin into lab-made sperm and egg cells. That would be a huge breakthrough for the infertile, or for same-sex couples who want to conceive a child biologically related to both partners. It would also open the door to using gene editing to tinker with those lab-made embryos. At first interventions would address any obvious genetic disorders, but those same tools would likely allow the engineering of a child's intelligence, height and other characteristics. We might be morally repelled today by such an ability, as many scientists and ethicists were repelled by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) when it was introduced four decades ago. Yet more than a million babies in the U.S. have been born through IVF in the years since. Ethics can evolve along with technology.
These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
Fertility is just one human institution that stands to be changed utterly by gene editing and writing, and it's a change we can at least imagine. As the new biology grows more ambitious, it will alter society in ways we can't begin to picture. Harvard's George Church and New York University's Jef Boeke are leading an effort called HGP-Write to create a completely synthetic human genome. While gene editing allows scientists to make small changes to the genome, the gene synthesis that Church and his collaborators are developing allows for total genetic rewrites. "It's a difference between editing a book and writing one," Church said in an interview earlier this year.
Church is already working on synthesizing organs that would be resistant to viruses, while other researchers like Harris Wang at Columbia University are experimenting with bioengineering mammalian cells to produce nutrients like amino acids that we currently need to get from food. The horizon is endless—and so are the ethical concerns of success. What if parents feel pressure to engineer their children just so they don't fall behind their IVG peers? What if only the rich are able to access synthetic biology technologies that could make them stronger, smarter and longer lived? Could inequality become encoded in the genome?
These are questions that are different from the terror and errors fears around biosecurity, because they ask us to think hard about what kind of future we want. To their credit, Church and his collaborators have engaged bioethicists from the start of their work, as have the pioneers behind CRISPR. But the challenges coming from successful gene editing and writing are too large to be outsourced to professional ethicists. These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.