An article in MIT Technology Review notes, "In just the past few years, advances in [the gene-editing technology] CRISPR have been happening at a breakneck speed — and companies have sprung up to commercialize the technology. Now, patients in Europe and the U.S. could be treated with CRISPR-based therapies as soon as 2018." Looking at actual research, however, the picture is more mixed: trials are planned at Stanford University, for example, but have already been delayed at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexey Bersenev, director of the Advanced Cell Therapy Lab at Yale New Haven Hospital, cautions “the field is currently over-optimistic about possible results of clinical trials. . . . Every new and hot biomedical technology usually undergoes an inflated expectations phase.”
The National Insitutes of Health (NIH) has ended "a moratorium imposed three years ago on funding research that alters germs to make them more lethal," according to the New York Times. The goal of such research is to better understand the mechanisms that drive pathogens to mutate and become deadly; the new guideline requires the germ pose a "serious health threat" and that the research be done in a highly secure lab. The Times article notes, "There has been a long, fierce debate about projects — known as 'gain of function' research — intended to make pathogens more deadly or more transmissible." The ban on such reseach was put in place after an incident in which lab workers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were accidentally exposed to anthrax. Michael T. Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a Consortium member, is quoted in the article. He believes this type of work could be done safely, but wanted restrictions on what would be published, noting "if someone finds a way to make the Ebola virus more dangerous, I don’t believe that should be available to anybody off the street who could use it for nefarious purposes. . . . We want to keep some of this stuff on a need-to-know basis."
A new post on the Bill of Health blog discusses new research that looks at whether upper age limits should be established for population-based preventive genomic screening. These types of limits are used in other clinical screenings on the assumption that older individuals wouldn't see clinical benefits. The authors of the paper used data from the GeneScreen study to look at how age issues were perceived and valued by researchers and participants. Their findings? "While clinical benefits of preventive genomic screening for older adults are debatable, our respondents perceived a range of benefits of screening in both clinical and research settings. Researchers and clinicians should carefully consider decisions about whether to exclude older adults and whether to provide information about benefits and risks across age groups."
According to an article in Ars Technica, "Psychologist Nicolas Guéguen's large body of research is the kind of social psychology that demonstrates, and likely fuels, the Mars vs. Venus model of gender interactions, with its assertions, for example, that men consider women wearing red to be more attractive. But it seems that at least some of his conclusions are resting on shaky ground. Since 2015, a pair of scientists, James Heathers and Nick Brown, has been looking closely at the results in Guéguen's work. What they've found raises a litany of questions about statistical and ethical problems. In some cases, the data is too perfectly regular or full of oddities, making it difficult to understand how it could have been generated by the experiment described by Guéguen." In addition to identifying questionable research outcomes, Heathers and Brown learned that some of Guéguen's methodologies put female researchers in sexualized situations. These types of concerns are central to Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science, a conference that will be held on the University of Minnesota campus on March 8. Eminent, nationally-known presenters will address data fabrication, selective data reporting, predatory journals and concerns about the reproducibility of scientific findings. To learn more and register for free in-person or webinar attendance, click here.
Doctors at Baylor University say a woman who received a uterine transplant has delivered a baby, the first time the surgery has worked outside of the Swedish hospital that pioneered the procedure. According to the Washington Post, "The surgeries differ from other transplants in one major way: They’re not intended to be permanent. Instead, they give a woman enough time to conceive a child. In vitro fertilized eggs are transferred to the woman’s womb, and after the baby is born, the uterus is removed via surgery." University of Minnesota Law School student Katarina Lee analyzed the medical, ethical and legal ramifications of uterus transplants in a Consortium-funded research project; you can read her report here. Proposals are currently being accepted for this year's Consortium research grants, which are available to UMN graduate and professional students for work during the summer of 2018 and academic year 2018-19. The deadline for proposals is Feb. 12, 2018.
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the case of a man — unconscious, in deteriorating health, and without identification or family — who was admitted to a Miami emergency room. Upon examination, doctors found a large tattoo that said DO NOT RESUSCITATE (DNR) on his upper chest. The ER doctors were initially inclined to disregard the DNR, "invoking the principle of not choosing an irreversible path when faced with uncertainty." However, an ethics consultant advocated that the patient's wishes, expressed through his tattoo, be honored. The patient died the next day. Hastings Center Scholar Nancy Berlinger opines, "[It] might have been the most reliable way to make his voice heard. It was right to take it seriously." She is co-author (with Consortium chair Susan M. Wolf and Bruce Jennings of the Center for Humans and Nature) of the definitive Guidelines on the Termination of Life-Sustaining Treatment and the Care of the Dying. In the Washington Post, bioethicist Arthur Caplan discusses the legal implications of the case, noting "there are no legal penalties for ignoring a tattoo that instructs medical personnel not to resuscitate." He goes on to say, “'A tattoo, I think, is best seen as a way to alert medical staff to your wishes or trigger an inquiry to family and friends and partners'. . . adding that patients should keep the actual [advance health-care directive] in a pocket or wallet."
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has appointed Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf to the External Advisory Panel for the Trans-Omics in Precision Medicine (TOPMed) Program, which is dedicated to the advancement of heart, lung, blood, and sleep precision medicine. Since its launch in 2014, TOPMed has supporting whole genome sequencing and other omics platforms such as metabolomics and proteomics; the project researchers expect to have achieved a total of 150,000 whole genome sequences by the end of 2018. Research conducted on such a scale raises importance governance questions, including how best to ensure the privacy of participants' health data when it's shared with the broader research community. Prof. Wolf is a renowned expert on genomic privacy, having led several research studies that established the legally and ethically preferred methods to manage research findings from biobanks. The External Advisory Panel will provide the NHLBI Director and staff with expert guidance on TOPMed, with the goal of applying systems biology to drive the future of precision medicine.
The Water Resources Center (WRC), a Consortium member, has received a grant of more than $930,000 from the new Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) initiative. INFEWS is jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The grant will fund research on innovations for sustainable food, energy, and water supplies in intensively cultivated regions, which are necessary because of the need to keep pace with the demands of a growing global population. In this project, researchers from the biophysical, socioeconomic, and computational sciences will investigate two types of innovations using data from the northern US Corn Belt. The lead investigator is Jeffrey Peterson, director of the WRC.
A team led by Michael Sadowsky, PhD, has created a tool designed to help public health officials better understand sources of contamination in our waterways. Sadowsky, a microbiologist, is the director of the BioTechnology Institute, a Consortium member. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 40% of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are impaired, with fecal contamination becoming a growing concern. Improved DNA sequencing technology has made it possible for researchers to identify the source of contamination, which should allow for identification of the pollutant at its source. Sadowsky's group used SourceTracker, a software program developed by the UMN’s Knights Lab, to compare the various organisms found in water samples. To learn more, click here.
Last week a 44-year-old California man was the first to be implanted with billions of copies of "a corrective gene and a genetic tool to cut his DNA in a precise spot," according to The Guardian. The patient, Brian Madeux, suffers from Hunter syndrome and has endured 26 operations to treat symptoms of the disease. Dr. Chester Whitley of Masonic Cancer Center, a Consortium member, is a lead scientist researching the therapy. It is based on zinc-finger nucleases, which work like "molecular scissors that seek and cut a specific piece of DNA." Dr. Whitley is quoted in the Atlantic, where he notes, “You know exactly where you’re going in the genome. It’s not like using a shotgun hoping you’re hitting a bird. It’s like using a rifle.” While still in clinical trial, if proven effective, zinc-finger nucleases could "kick off a new era for gentic disorders, one where kids never have to suffer their effects in the first place."