Crispr Babies May Have Shortened Lifespans

In our weekly news roundup: new study says gene-edited twins could face earlier death, New York moves to ban cat declawing, and more.

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  • He Jiankui is interviewed by Chinese press on August 4, 2016. In January 2019, following his controversial gene-editing experiments, He was terminated from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, in China’s Guandong province.

Last November, Chinese researcher He Jiankui was met with outrage from biologists, doctors, and ethicists around the world when he made the bombshell announcement that he had modified the genomes of twin girls. Now, a study published in Nature Medicine suggests the edits could ultimately shorten the sisters’ lives.

Scanning more than 400,000 genomes and associated health records from the British gene database U.K. Biobank, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that individuals with two copies of the genetic mutation sought in the girls — known as delta 32 — were 21 percent more likely to die by age 76 than people with one or zero. These earlier deaths could be due to greater susceptibility in people with the double mutation to viruses like the flu, as established by previous research, but the scientists said in a press release there could be any number of explanations, since the protein that the gene, called CCR5, codes for has many functions throughout the body.

“We really don’t understand what it’s doing,” biologist Robin Lovell-Badge, who was not involved in the study, told Scientific American. “Its role is in the immune system is not entirely clear, and we really don’t understand what it’s doing in the brain.”

He has tried to justify his work by claiming the edits were intended to protect the children from future HIV infection. Using Crispr-Cas9, an enzyme designed to cut DNA at a target location, He aimed to alter the girls’ CCR5 genes, thus crippling their ability to code for a protein on white blood cells’ receptors through which HIV can enter and infect them. To the horror of scientists, his experiment didn’t go exactly to plan; the mutations he created don’t match delta-32, making the health effects the girls may face even more unclear.

Many scientists point to such gaps in the scientific knowledge about the potential health consequences of altering genes — particularly in a manner which allows the edits to be passed on to future generations, as was intended in He’s work — as reason enough to call for a global moratorium on heritable gene-editing experiments in humans.

“Heritable genetic modifications will intrinsically be an experiment — an experiment conducted on children,” science historian J. Benjamin Hurlbut of Arizona State University told STAT. “We better be damn sure what we’re doing before we embark on that.”

Also in the news:

• New York could soon become the first state to ban the declawing of cats. The surgical procedure, described as “brutal” by one of the legislators pushing to end its use, involves removing a section of the toe bone to which cats’ claws are attached. While not medically necessary, around a quarter of cats in the U.S. are declawed, often at the request of owners seeking to prevent scratches to their skin or furniture. But according to Minnesota veterinarian Ron Gaskin, the procedure “was never investigated for long-term safety, or whether it generated pain later on in life.” Animal rights advocates argue that it does. Declawing is already illegal in several U.S. cities and much of Europe. If the New York law is passed, veterinarians who declaw cats in the state would be fined $1,000. While vets generally encourage cat owners to explore other options to address their pet’s behavior, the New York State Veterinary Medical Society has come out against the legislation: “Declawing,” the organization said in a statement, “should remain a viable alternative to euthanasia if all other options have failed.” (The Washington Post)

• India remains in the grips of a dangerous heatwave, with nearly the entire country experiencing above average temperatures. On Monday, thermometers in the northern city of Churu showed a temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly topping the country’s all-time record high of 124 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in the town of Phalodi in 2016. According to The Times of India, 17 people have died from heat-related causes and the number is only expected to rise. A recent government report says this year’s extreme weather is part of a worrisome trend linked to global climate change: Since record-keeping began, 11 of India’s 15 warmest years have all occurred since 2004. More than 22,000 Indians are estimated to have died due to heatwaves since 1992, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). In the face of such dire forecasts, the NDMA has run an ambitious campaign in recent years to reach zero deaths from heatwaves by mobilizing local governments ahead of time and improving public risk awareness. So far, results have been encouraging — in 2017, 222 heatwave deaths were reported, down from 1,111 in 2016. (Multiple sources)

• Led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Hungarian government made moves this week to bring the nation’s Academy of Sciences under state control, sparking protests on the streets of Budapest. The move to nationalize Hungary’s 200-year-old research institution is the latest in a spate of legislation passed by Orban’s ruling right-wing nationalist party to tighten government control over many aspects of public life, including scientific enterprise and education. If passed, the legislation will give a new governing body control of the Academy’s buildings and assets, dissolve its network of research institutions, and allocate research funding. “We will not allow government bureaucrats to decide about research, scientific work,” Judit Gárdos, a research fellow at the Academy and a member of the Academic Worker’s Forum, which organized the rally, told Reuters. “That is unheard of anywhere in the democratic world.” (Reuters)

• During an attempted arrest on Staten Island in July of 2014, a New York City police officer put 43-year-old Eric Garner in a chokehold and killed him. Despite public outcry, it would take nearly three years for the officer’s history of abuse complaints to become known and another two before a disciplinary hearing was held. In response to this and other similar cases, transparency advocates are working to open up records about police misconduct, which they say are essential for ensuring accountability. Public databases including the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP) and CAPstat are central to that effort. The former includes civilian complaints against police in Chicago, while the latter contains data on federal civil rights lawsuits against police in New York City. Those using the databases include community members but also police supervisors who previously lacked access to information on their underlings. (Undark)

• The Trump Administration announced Wednesday that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will no longer perform research involving human fetal tissue from abortions, and it will curtail funding of fetal-tissue research conducted at universities. A $2 million per-year fetal-tissue research contract with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) will be terminated, officials said, and the approximately 200 other fetal-tissue research projects funded with NIH grants will be subject to review at the end of their current contracts. The move, which the administration linked to the president’s desire to promote “the dignity of human life from conception to natural death,” is being hailed by anti-abortion groups. “This is yet another step by the Trump administration in the march to restore the sanctity of all human life in America,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group, told The Washington Post. But scientists have sharply criticized the decision, noting that fetal tissue research has helped develop treatments for diseases ranging from AIDS to Zika. Said Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of UCSF, in a statement Wednesday, “We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science.” (The New York Times)

• And finally: In a study published this week in Science Advances, researchers claim to have calculated a “hard limit” on human endurance by studying six runners as they completed the equivalent of 117 marathons in just 20 weeks. By putting unusual but harmless hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in the athletes’ water and tracking them as they passed out of their bodies in the form of sweat, urine, and vapor, scientists were able to determine how many calories each one burned per day — and therefore how much energy they were expending. The researchers compared their results with data collected from other endurance events like arctic ultramarathons and the Tour de France, and found that, in all cases, energy expenditure leveled off around the 20-day mark, plateauing at about 2.5 times the individual’s basal metabolic rate, or how much energy they use at rest. At this limit, the body is burning calories just as quickly as it can absorb them from food, and if pushed further, must rely on fat reserves for energy. (Science)

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1 comment / Join the Discussion

    IT seems strange that as temperatures around the globe increase as does sporadic rainfall no mention is made of the destruction of the world’s rain forests. These forests create oxygen for the world, reduce co2 and co contamination from the atmosphere, absorb heat and moisture to name a few of the benefits. Yet as these forests are depleted at the rate of (last I heard) 1000 acres a month no mention is made of the negative effects. Plotting the loss of rainforests against temperature increases and increased rainfall/snowfall seems to show a parallel. Now India is showing very high temperatures – is this the result of loss of rainforests in the area?

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