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Here Come the Designer Babies

1 August 2017
Giulio Prisco


The most interesting human enhancement story that emerged last week is certainly the news (still officially unconfirmed) that scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University have demonstrated they can efficiently improve the DNA of human embryos, as reported by the prestigious MIT Technology Review.

According to the report, Mitalipov’s team used the CRISPR gene editing technique to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases. This isn’t the first experiment of this nature, but the scientists managed to overcome previous roadblocks by injecting CRISPR into the eggs at the same time they were fertilized with sperm.

It appears that CRISPR could soon permit creating designer babies. See Pulse 22 for a review of the recently published book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, co-authored by Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of CRISPR.

Other news items show how, over billions of years, evolution has engineered compounds that we can now use for therapy and enhancement: Green tea and lutein can counter age-related ailments including cognitive decline, nanoparticles loaded with component of common spice turmeric can kill cancer cells, and spider silk can repair damaged nerves.

Advances in understanding DNA organization in cells. Scientists at the Salk Institute and the University of California, San Diego, have obtained high-resolution images  of the 3D structure of human chromatin - the combination of DNA and proteins - in the nucleus of living human cells. The study, published in Science, suggests that chromatin’s packing density determines which areas of the genome are active and which are suppressed. According to the researchers, the findings suggest that controlling access to chromatin could be a useful approach to preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases such as cancer.

Faulty DNA “spell checking” could cause cancer. Researchers at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, have identified important processes that create mutations that cause cancer by studying the genomes of more than 1,000 tumors. The research work, published in Cell, suggests that many mutations in human cancers are caused by errors made by a repair mechanism or “DNA spellchecker” rather than the actual damage to DNA caused by the environment. However, some environmental factors such as sunlight and alcohol seem to increase errors.

Lab-created mini-brains permit studying how the brain works. Scientists at Yale University have grown brain organoids - three-dimensional regions of the brain - in the lab to study how the brain develops. Published in Cell Stem Cell, the study shows how the scientists coaxed early stage stem cells to create and fuse two types of organoids from different brain regions to show how the developing brain maintains proper balance of excitatory and inhibitory neurons.

Brain stem cells control the aging process and could be used to slow it down. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found that stem cells in the brain's hypothalamus govern how fast aging occurs in the body. The study, published in Nature, shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over time. This decline accelerates aging, but it’s not irreversible: By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it could be possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body. According to the scientists, the finding, made in lab mice, could lead to new strategies for warding off age-related diseases and extending lifespan.

Exosuit helps stroke victims to walk normally. A research team led by bioengineers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a lightweight, soft, wearable ankle-assisting exosuit that can assist stroke patients to walk normally, opening new approaches to rehabilitation. The research results, published in Science Translational Medicine, show that soft wearable robots can have significant positive impact on gait functions in patients post-stroke.

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