Gene and Tonic: The Tenth Commandment of Science, Icelandic Treasure, and TechBio Babies

We were off last week, so there’s plenty to talk about.

The big news has been about human germline modification.  Do you know about this?  MIT’s Tech Review put out an article early in the month that was kind of an expose suggesting that scientists around the world are beginning to modify the human germline.  Now, this is not the germs you pick up in a public restroom.  No, we’re talking the reproductive cells, our sperm and eggs.  We’ve been changing human genes before, it’s called gene therapy,  but never the germline because then the changes get passed on to future generations.   So it could be a good thing.  But it might be really bad.  Someone might make a mistake and create a new disease. 

And this danger has the scientific community up in arms.  Two groups of scientists took to the prestigious journals last week with papers, one in Science Magazine, the other in Nature.  

The Nature paper came out and said flatly:  Do not modify the human germline.  The Science Magazine paper, however was more . . . you might say optimistic.  This paper said let’s be careful.    If the authors of the Nature paper were setting themselves up as God  writing one of the holy Ten Commandments of Life Science with His finger: Thou Shalt Not Modify the Human Germline, then the authors of the Science paper were playing the loving gentle father who takes his son aside one day, and puts his arm around his shoulder, and says, son, or daughter, there’s something I should tell you about the world.  Just because you can fly a plane, doesn’t mean you should fly it into the side of a mountain.  And son, or daughter, looks dad back in the eye, and says,  but dad, no one would do that.

Speaking of cold mountains in Europe.  A treasure trove of genomic data was released out of Iceland this week.  Huh? Iceland?  Well yeah, after going bankrupt, the country may have just found their next big hidden natural resource:  genomic data. 

This is a treasure for two reasons:  first, the homogenous nature of the population.  There’s not much genetic mixing going on . . . because who the hell wants to  go and live on Iceland?

And two:  in hoping to benefit from this new natural resource, the citizens have been very willing to consent.  

So we’re seeing some cool stuff in this week's publication of the data.  There's been discovery of new disease causing genes.   For example, the MYLF gene was found in only eight people, and all eight have early onset atrial fibrillation.  There’s also a rare mutation that influences the thyroid.

Unfortunately, they haven’t found the gene yet that explains why someone would want to live on the North Pole.

Daniel MacArthur--he’s a geneticist at Mass General who’s in charge of the genomic data for the whole world--he says the work is very impressive, but completely unfair. He says deCODE, the company that generated the data, has now managed to get more genetic data than he has, and he’s funded by the Broad!  It’s just completely unfair.

No he didn’t say that.  

People in cold country are not the only ones being sequenced.  A report out of Saudi Arabia this week says that marriages are being called off due to genetic incompatibility!  One Saudi prince said that before he takes that fourth wife, he wants to be sure this time that she has no 'dominant' genes.

Speaking of arranged marriages, we attended the Techonomy Bio conference this week.  It’s an attempt to bring together tech and bio folks and see what happens.  One of the pairings was Marc Benioff, you know the tech billionaire and  CEO of Salesforce, interviewing Susan Desmond Hellman, the CEO of the Gates Foundation.  Benioff told Sue that he loved what she’s done with her bio, and Sue told Benioff she loves what he’s done with his tech.  And then they kissed.

No they didn’t.  They’re married--to other people.  But wouldn’t it be great to have one of these tech moguls marry a biotechie and then have techbio babies.  Benioff said that the place where tech and bio will meet is in digital health.  So they would be digital health babies.  But not everyone is on board with that.  One of the most tweeted lines of the day came from an investor, Greg Simon, who said he wasn’t convinced.  He said, “wearing your Fitibit into Dunkin Donuts does not a digital health revolution make.”

And that’s our show for March 27th.  Have a great weekend everyone.

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