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Pulse 27: CRISPR and Cryo-Preservation

Giulio Prisco Pulse Newsletter

Reflection in Ice

The successful improvement in the DNA of human embryos reported by the prestigious MIT Technology Review, covered in last week’s Pulse, has been officially confirmed by a press release and a research paper in Nature (see below). Predictably, the news is all over the mainstream press.

“It feels a bit like a ‘one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who helped discover CRISPR, told The New York Times. See Pulse 22 for a review of Doudna’s recent book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.

In the wake of these spectacular research results, an international group of 11 organizations has issued a policy statement on germline genome editing in humans, recommending a cautious but proactive approach.

Cryonics fans are enthusiastic about a new cryo-preservation study (see below), which they consider to be a significant breakthrough. The story has been widely covered (and over-hyped) by the popular press. “The possibility of being able to live FOREVER just became one step closer as scientists proved that they can revive cryogenically frozen life,” reads the subtitle of a story published in The Daily Express.

Natural Society notes that this cryo-preservation technique, once perfected for humans, could even be used for long-distance space travel. If astronauts could be placed in a state of suspended animation, they would require less food and water.

Colonizing the planets and living forever ... this would be wonderful indeed. Yet, it’s wise to use caution and bear in mind that the road from zebrafish embryos to adult humans is long and hard: successful human cryopreservation will not be achieved tomorrow, or next week. On the other hand, this research result suggests that successful long-term cryo-preservation for humans is feasible in-principle and therefore will be achieved one day.

CRISPR gene editing inheritably corrects dangerous gene mutation in human embryos. Researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University have demonstrated an effective way of using a gene-editing tool to correct a disease-causing gene mutation in human embryos and stop it from passing to future generations. The study, published in Nature, documents how the researchers used CRISPR gene editing to target a mutation in nuclear DNA that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a common genetic heart disease that can cause sudden cardiac death and heart failure.

CRISPR gene therapy via skin could treat disease and obesity. Scientists at the University of Chicago have developed a new approach to CRISPR gene therapy with skin transplantation, which could enable a wide range of gene-based therapies to treat many human diseases and even obesity. The research results, published in Cell Stem Cell, provide “proof-of-concept.” They describe gene-therapy administered through skin transplants to treat two related and extremely common human ailments: type-2 diabetes and obesity.

Gold nanorods assist cryo-preservation. Scientists have reported, for the first time, the ability to both deep freeze and reanimate zebrafish embryos. The researchers have used gold nanorods (GNRs) to assist in the warming process: heating the gold nanorods with lasers resulted in rapid and uniform warming with reduced ice formation, which can damage the embryos. The research results, published in ACS Nano, could open the way to viable cryo-preservation.

Programmable nano-devices for synthetic biological circuits. Bioengineers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed ways to give RNA molecules the capacity to sense multiple signals and make logical decisions to control protein production with high precision. According to the researchers, such programmable nano-devices are a step toward more sophisticated synthetic biological circuits, able to analyze complex cellular environments efficiently and to respond accurately. The research paper, published in Nature, describes a genetically encodable RNA nano-device that can perform a 12-input logic operation. "This breakthrough at the interface of nanotechnology and synthetic biology will enable us to design more reliable synthetic biological circuits that are much more conscious of the influences in their environment relevant to specific goals,” said the research team leader.

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