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The Brave New World of CRISPR

20 February 2017
Giulio Prisco


The first issues of Pulse have received good reactions. So, Pulse becomes a weekly newsletter starting with this issue. Now you have no excuse for not staying updated on human enhancement news.

In the last couple of weeks there has been a shortage of news about human enhancement lite (you know, healthy aging, better skin care and all that) and a deluge of intriguing news on next-generation human enhancement tech, spearheaded by legal decisions on genome editing technologies and related advances. Therefore, this issue is focused on tomorrow’s news. Keep watching, though, because we’ll resume our coverage of human enhancement here-and-now, with actionable advice, starting next week. Stay tuned.

One thing that the news and views below have in common, is the potential to raise concerns of an ethical nature. My own approach to ethics is simple, minimalist, and crystal clear: if something can improve quality of life for one person, without making the life of others actually worse, then that something is something good, ethical, and worth pursuing. I could elaborate for hours, but I prefer to keep things short. In my opinion, this simple clear ethics could do wonders to improve everyone’s life on this planet.

OK, there we go. Here is a roundup of interesting human enhancement news that has risen to the surface of public awareness in the last two weeks:

64-year-old gives birth to healthy twins. Who said over sixty is old? Not M.I.A., a 64-year-old woman who gave cesarean birth to healthy twins at the Hospital Recoletas in Burgos, Spain (announcement in Spanish). The woman, who underwent in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in the United States, had previously given birth to her first daughter in 2011.

The brave new world of designer reproduction. Radical genetic interventions on human embryos and “designer babies” are among the most discussed novelties expected from the brave new world of genetic engineering. The February print edition of The Economist is running a feature on futuristic reproductive technologies. Among other developments, the prestigious journal covers the first wave of “three parent babies,” now sanctioned by UK law. The last member of the still select three parents baby club was born in January in Ukraine. “Ways of reproducing without sexual intercourse are multiplying,” notes The Economist. “History suggests that they should be embraced.”

CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing patents confirmed. The Broad Institute of Harvard University and MIT have won a historic case against the University of California in Berkeley, Nature News reports. The official US patent office confirmed Harvard and MIT patents covering  CRISPR/Cas9, a gene editing technique that allows scientists to cut and paste DNA sections, opening the way to operational, systematic Lego-like genetic engineering.

Hybrid chimeras for organ transplants. Scientists at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences integrated human stem cells into developing pig embryos. Using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, the scientists deleted a specific DNA section and replaced it with human stem cells. The research, reported in the journal Cell, could open a new door to the creation of chimeras - human/animal hybrids that could one day be used to grow replacement organs for patients waiting for a transplant.

CRISPR/Cas9 for age-reversal and more. The promises of CRISPR/Cas9 appear also in other recent news headlines. In a talk, maverick geneticist George Church, co-founder of CRISPR-based genome editing company Editas, said that he believes he is just two years away from creating a hybrid woolly mammoth embryo, thus bringing the long extinct creatures back to life. In the same talk Church predicted that age-reversal will become a reality within 10 years as a result of the new developments in genetic engineering.

Telepathic user interfaces for the severely disabled. A brain-computer interface (BCI) that can decipher the thoughts of people who are unable to communicate, developed by neuroscientists at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland, could revolutionize the lives of locked-in people - those who are unable to even blink or move a finger. Four locked-in patients were able to answer yes/no questions, using their thoughts alone. The BCI technique used in the study (open access) combines near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) with electroencephalography (EEG) to measure blood oxygenation and electrical activity in the brain. It seems likely that similar techniques, besides improving the life of tragically disabled patients, could one day permit developing artificial telepathy (Mark Zuckerberg would agree).

Welcome to the Machine. If the previous item makes you think that the divide between humans and machines is blurring and shrinking, you’re not alone. At the World Government Summit in Dubai, Elon Musk, the bold creator of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, predicted that future people, augmented with digital implants, will be able to interact with the future world at electronic speed, much faster than in today’s world. As a result, we will probably see a merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence.

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