All posts by Lucy Ingham

Host of genetic research groups issue backing for inheritable human gene editing

A group of 11 organisations spanning five continents have issued a policy statement in support of current efforts to edit human germline genomes – that is, genes which passed down from parent to child.

The statement, published today in The American Journal of Human Genetics, said that the organisations support publicly funded in-vitro research into germline genome editing, which could eventually be used to eliminate devastating inherited diseases.

However, they stopped short of supporting research that would lead to a human pregnancy, arguing that at this stage it would be inappropriate to undertake.

“Our workgroup on genome editing included experts in several subfields of human genetics as well as from countries with varying health systems and research infrastructure,” said statement lead author Kelly E Ormond, professor of genetics at Stanford University.

“Given this diversity of perspective, we are encouraged by the agreement we were able to reach and hope it speaks to the soundness and wider acceptability of our recommendations.”

A depiction of the now widespread CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex, which enables DNA to be edited. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Ian Slaymaker, Broad Institute

Germline genome editing has only been even hypothetically possible very recently, with the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing tool in 2013. Allowing precise customisation of genes, it creates whole new possibilities for genetic research, particularly in humans.

However, while scientists feel confident of the technological and scientific prospects, the technology raises significant ethical issues, particularly in germline genomes, where any changes could have an impact for generations.

As a result, the scientists argue that there needs to be strong public discussion about the ethical issues, as well as clear rationale, evidence and ethical justifications for any future research in the area.

“While germline genome editing could theoretically be used to prevent a child being born with a genetic disease, its potential use also raises a multitude of scientific, ethical, and policy questions,” said Derek T Scholes, ASHG director of science policy. “These questions cannot all be answered by scientists alone, but also need to be debated by society.”

“As basic science research into genome editing progresses in the coming years, we urge stakeholders to have these important ethical and social discussions in tandem,” added Ormond.

Conventional two-stranded DNA

As a result, it is likely that we will see far more public discussion before the first gene-edited babies come anywhere close to being conceived.

The statement was authored by the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), the Association of Genetic Nurses and Counsellors, the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors, the International Genetic Epidemiology Society, and the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It was also endorsed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the Asia Pacific Society of Human Genetics, the British Society for Genetic Medicine, the Human Genetics Society of Australasia, the Professional Society of Genetic Counselors in Asia and the Southern African Society for Human Genetics.

Emissions set to make extra 150 million protein deficient by 2050

Carbon dioxide emissions will result in millions of people facing the prospect of protein deficiency by 2050, according to a by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, which is published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that the populations of 47 countries will lose over 5% of their dietary protein if projected rises in carbon dioxide emissions come to pass, as increased CO₂ reduces the nutritional value of dietary staples such as wheat and rice.

Some of the affected countries already face significant protein deficiency problems, such as countries in Sub Saharan Africa, but the projected rise is set to bring to issue to an additional 150 million people. Protein deficiency can cause, among its symptoms, muscle wasting, infections and delayed wound healing, potentially leading to a host of additional health issues.

“This study highlights the need for countries that are most at risk to actively monitor their populations’ nutritional sufficiency, and, more fundamentally, the need for countries to curb human-caused CO₂ emissions,” said Samuel Myers, senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health.

82% of the population gets the majority of their protein from plants, making nutritional changes as a result of increases in atmospheric CO₂ a serious concern

It was already known that a greater quantity of atmospheric CO₂ results in plants producing less protein as they grow, however this study is the first to quantify the extent.

The researchers found that under the elevated CO₂ concentrations projected to occur in the atmosphere by 2050, rice, wheat, barley and potatoes would see a drop in protein content by 7.6%, 7.8%, 14.1% and 6.4% respectively.

An additional study by Myers, which is also published today in the journal GeoHealth, found that CO₂ are also set to cause a drop in iron found in nutritional staples, increasing the chances of iron deficiency.

Add the findings of a 2015 study where Myers and colleagues found that the same elevated emissions are set to put 200 million people at risk of a zinc deficiency, and it is clear that in many parts of the world there is a serious risk to people’s health as a result of atmospheric CO₂.

New technologies such as this air scrubber by Climeworks could help reduce the rise of atmospheric CO₂, however far more needs to be done. Image courtesy of Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

The obvious solution to this is to make increased efforts to limit CO₂ emissions, however with many countries remaining sluggish in acting on climate change-related issues, it is doubtful as to whether this will be achieved.

However, it will also be important to focus dietary strategies on the affected countries, meaning primarily focusing on South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and India, where 53 million people will be affected.

“Strategies to maintain adequate diets need to focus on the most vulnerable countries and populations, and thought must be given to reducing vulnerability to nutrient deficiencies through supporting more diverse and nutritious diets, enriching the nutritional content of staple crops, and breeding crops less sensitive to these CO₂ effects,” Myers said. “And, of course, we need to dramatically reduce global CO₂ emissions as quickly as possible.”