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Update December, 2019


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Health & Wellbeing
 

1 year later, mystery surrounds China’s gene-edited babies

In this Nov. 28, 2018, file photo, He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong. He has not been seen publicly since January, his work has not been published and nothing is known about the health of the GMO babies. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Marilynn Marchione, AP

Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the world by claiming he had helped make the first gene-edited babies. One year later, mystery surrounds his fate as well as theirs.

Jiankui has not been seen publicly since January, his work has not been published and nothing is known about the health of the babies.

“That’s the story — it’s all cloaked in secrecy, which is not productive for the advance of understanding,” said Stanford bioethicist Dr. William Hurlbut.

Jiankui talked with Hurlbut many times before Jiankui revealed at a Hong Kong science conference that he had used a tool called CRISPR to alter a gene in embryos to try to help them resist infection with the AIDS virus. The work, which Jiankui discussed in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press, was denounced as medically unnecessary and unethical because of possible harm to other genes and because the DNA changes can pass to future generations.

Since then, many people have called for regulations or a moratorium on similar work, but committees have bogged down over who should set standards and how to enforce them.

“Nothing has changed,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania geneticist who just published a book about gene editing and the CRISPR babies case.

“I think we’re farther from governing this” now than a year ago, said Hurlbut, who disapproves of what Jiankui did. However, so much effort has focused on demonizing Jiankui that it has distracted from how to move forward, he said.

Here’s what’s known about the situation:

He Jiankui

Jiankui was last seen in early January in Shenzhen, on the balcony of an apartment at his university, which fired him from its faculty after his work became known. Armed guards were in the hall, leading to speculation he was under house arrest.

A few weeks later, China’s official news agency said an investigation had determined that Jiankui acted alone out of a desire for fame and would be punished for any violations of law.

Since then, AP’s efforts to reach him have been unsuccessful. Ryan Ferrell, a media relations person Jiankui hired, declined to comment. Ferrell previously said Jiankui’s wife had started paying him, which might mean that Jiankui is no longer in a position to do that himself.

Hurlbut, who had been in touch with Jiankui early this year, declined to say when he last heard from him.

The Babies

The Chinese investigation seemed to confirm the existence of twin girls whose DNA Jiankui said he altered. The report said the twins and people involved in a second pregnancy using a gene-edited embryo would be monitored by government health departments. Nothing has been revealed about the third baby, which should have been born from that second pregnancy in late summer.

Chinese officials have seized the remaining edited embryos and Jiankui’s lab records.

“Jiankui caused unintended consequences in these twins,” Musunuru said of the gene editing. “We don’t know if it’s harming the kids.”

Others who were involved

Rice University in Houston said it is still investigating the role of Michael Deem, whose name was on a paper Jiankui sent to a journal and who spoke with the AP about Jiankui’s work. Deem was Jiankui’s adviser when Jiankui attended Rice years ago.

The AP and others have reported on additional scientists in the U.S. and China who knew or strongly suspected what Jiankui was doing.

“Many people knew, many people encouraged him. Jiankui did not do this in a corner,” Hurlbut said.

The Science

Scientists recently have found new ways to alter genes that may be safer than CRISPR. Gene editing also is being tested against diseases in children and adults, which is not controversial because those changes don’t pass to future generations. Some scientists think gene editing will become more widely accepted if it’s proved to work in those situations.

“It’s moving forward slowly because it’s being done responsibly,” Musunuru said.

Public Opinion

A forum was held in Berkeley, California, last month to get public views on gene editing — everything from modifying mosquitoes and crops to altering embryos.

The National Academy of Sciences recently pulled a video it made after concern arose about how it portrayed the ethically dicey science and its possible use to make designer babies. The academy has been leading some efforts to set standards for gene editing, and it gets most of its funding from the government, although a private grant paid for the video, a spokeswoman said.

An AP/NORC poll last year found that most Americans say it would be OK to use gene-editing to protect babies against disease, but not to change DNA so children are born smarter, faster or taller.

Regulation

A moratorium is no longer strong enough, and regulation is needed, CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley recently wrote in a commentary in the journal Science.

She noted that the World Health Organization has asked regulators in all countries not to allow such experiments, and that a Russian scientist recently proposed one.

“The temptation to tinker” with the DNA of embryos, eggs or sperm “is not going away,” she wrote.


Study: For babies born with HIV, start treatment right away

 

This undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a scanning electron micrograph of multiple round bumps of the HIV-1 virus on a cell surface. When newborns are infected with HIV, a new study suggests starting treatment right away is better than waiting just a few weeks to months. (Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)

Lauran Neergaard

Washington (AP) — When babies are born with HIV, starting treatment within hours to days is better than waiting even the few weeks to months that’s the norm in many countries, researchers reported Wednesday.

The findings, from a small but unique study in Botswana, could influence care in Africa and other regions hit hard by the virus. They also might offer a clue in scientists’ quest for a cure.

The Harvard-led team found super early treatment limits how HIV takes root in a newborn’s body, shrinking the “reservoir” of virus that hides out, ready to rebound if those youngsters ever stop their medications.

“We don’t think the current intervention is itself curative, but it sets the stage” for future attempts, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who co-authored the study.

Giving pregnant women a cocktail of anti-HIV drugs can prevent them from spreading the virus to their unborn children, a step that has dramatically reduced the number of babies born with the virus worldwide. Still, some 300 to 500 infants are estimated to be infected every day in sub-Saharan Africa.

Doctors have long known that treating babies in the first weeks to months of life is important, because their developing immune systems are especially vulnerable to HIV. But an infant dubbed the “Mississippi baby” raised a critical question: Should treatment start even earlier? The girl received a three-drug combination within 30 hours of her birth in July 2010, highly unusual for the time. Her family quit treatment when she was a toddler — yet her HIV remained in remission for a remarkable 27 months before she relapsed and restarted therapy.

The Botswana study was one of several funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health after doctors learned of the Mississippi baby, to further explore very early treatment.

The findings are encouraging, said Dr. Deborah Persaud, a pediatric HIV specialist at Johns Hopkins University who wasn’t involved with the Botswana study but helped evaluate the Mississippi baby.

“The study showed what we hypothesized happened in the Mississippi baby, that very early treatment really prevents establishment of these long-lived reservoir cells that currently are the barrier to HIV eradication,” Persaud said.

She cautioned: “Very early treatment is important, but prevention should still be our top priority.”

In Botswana, researchers tested at-risk newborns, enrolling 40 born with HIV, treating them within hours to a few days, and tracking them for two years. On Wednesday, they reported results from the first 10 patients, comparing them with 10 infants getting regular care — treatment beginning when they were a few months old.

Medication brought HIV under control in both groups. But the children treated earliest had a much smaller reservoir of HIV in their blood, starting about six months into treatment, the researchers reported in Science Translational Medicine.

The earliest-treated children also got another benefit: more normal functioning of some key parts of the immune system.

One big question: Did the HIV reservoir shrink enough to make a long-term difference? To find out, next year the researchers will give these children experimental antibodies designed to help keep HIV in check, and test how they fare with a temporary stop to their anti-HIV drugs.

In the U.S., Europe and South Africa, it’s becoming common to test at-risk infants at birth. But in most lower-income countries, babies aren’t tested until they’re 4 to 6 weeks old, said study co-author Dr. Roger Shapiro, a Harvard infectious disease specialist.


Old dogs, new tricks: 10,000 pets needed for science

In this Monday, Nov. 11, 2019 photo, University of Washington School of Medicine researcher Daniel Promislow, the principal investigator of the Dog Aging Project grant, rubs the head of his elderly dog Frisbee at their home in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Carla K. Johnson

Seattle (AP) — Can old dogs teach us new tricks? Scientists are looking for 10,000 pets for the largest-ever study of aging in canines. They hope to shed light on human longevity too.

The project will collect a pile of pooch data: vet records, DNA samples, gut microbes and information on food and walks. Five hundred dogs will test a pill that could slow the aging process.

“What we learn will potentially be good for dogs and has great potential to translate to human health,” said project co-director Daniel Promislow of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

If scientists find a genetic marker for a type of cancer in dogs, for instance, that could be explored in humans.

For the study, the dogs will live at home and follow their usual routine. All ages and sizes, purebreds and mutts are welcome.

Owners will complete periodic online surveys and take their dogs to the vet once a year, with the possibility of extra visits for certain tests. Their welfare will be monitored by a bioethicist and a panel of animal welfare advisers.

To nominate a pet, owners can visit the Dog Aging Project’s website.

The five-year study was formally launched Thursday at a science meeting in Austin, Texas. The National Institute on Aging is paying for the $23 million project because dogs and humans share the same environment, get the same diseases and dogs’ shorter lifespans allow quicker research results, said deputy director, Dr. Marie Bernard. The data collected will be available to all scientists.

Leslie Lambert of Parkville, Maryland, enrolled her 11-year-old rescue dog, Oscar, in an early phase.

“I would selfishly like to have him around forever,” said the 33-year-old veterinarian. “Unfortunately, he ages much, much faster than I do.”

But she’s torn by the prospect of an anti-aging pill because so many abandoned dogs go without care. “Just because we can, should we?”

Compared to farm dogs in the past, today’s pampered pups live longer and get more geriatric diseases, said veterinarian Dr. Kate Creevy of Texas A&M University, the project’s chief scientific officer.

Yet no standard measures exist for frailty or prognosis in sick, aged dogs, Creevy said. The project will develop those tools.

One dog year is roughly equal to seven human years, Creevy said, but that varies by breed. Large dogs have shorter lifespans than smaller dogs. A Great Dane’s lifespan is about half that of a toy poodle’s.

That makes large dogs better test subjects for the pill. Dogs weighing at least 40 pounds will be eligible for an experiment with rapamycin, now taken by humans to prevent rejection of transplanted kidneys. The drug has extended lifespan in mice. A small safety study in dogs found no dangerous side effects, said project co-director Matt Kaeberlein of the University of Washington.

Human devotion to dogs drives projects like this, the scientists said. Owners will gladly fill out surveys, send records and submit a pup’s poop for analysis if they think it will help all dogs live longer, even if it won’t help their pet.

“People love dogs,” said Promislow, who normally studies aging in fruit flies. “No one has ever come up to me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, I just love fruit flies.’”

Promislow’s mixed breed, 14-year-old Frisbee, will not participate to prevent a conflict of interest.

“It’s too bad because she’s a terrific example of a really healthy ager,” he said.

  


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

1 year later, mystery surrounds China’s gene-edited babies


Study: For babies born with HIV, start treatment right away


Old dogs, new tricks: 10,000 pets needed for science