history of science


The Gene Edited Babies Saga - A Year Later with Hank Greely

On November 25th, 2018, the world was shocked to find out a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, had edited the germline of twin girls-and the twins had been born. Many in the scientific community remember that Sunday afternoon well as the story broke on MIT's Tech Review, "EXCLUSIVE: Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies."

Today’s guest can even tell you what he had for dinner that Sunday and just what was his reaction. "Holy Shit!"

Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford and author of "The End of Sex: the Future of Human Reproduction", has followed the “CRISPR baby” story just about as close as anyone we know. He joins us today to look back on that momentous week and reflect.

What was his and the scientific community’s immediate reaction? Now, a year later, what have we learned? How has the story evolved? And what is the future of germline editing?

"What strikes me most is the arrogance, the hubris, the foolishness, of He thinking he's going to be able to do this and be acclaimed as a hero. And maybe it wouldn't be immediately, but he would be Galileo who would ultimately be recognized as being ahead of his time. I think he was criminally reckless and so full of his own dreams and glory that he risked the lives and health of babies. And that's unforgivable to me."

Was That Anti-Scientism Article in Nature Just a Fancy Rant or Some Real Breakthrough Stuff?

I’m afraid it was a missed opportunity.

Let's applaud the Johns Hopkins science historian, Nathaniel Comfort, for testing out the tires--and carburetor--of his new tenureship and publishing a piece on scientism.  And in one of science’s top journals at that.   Obviously Comfort touched a nerve, generating a wave of reaction on Twitter, including a rebuke from the top celebrity Enlightenment fundamentalist evangelist, Steven Pinker. 

Where I Agree and Disagree with Precision Medicine’s Chief Critic, Michael Joyner

Precision Medicine is more than a narrative, a story.  Hundreds of thousands of patients take drugs every day that are precision medicine drugs.  Thousands of women have been tested for BRCA genes and thousands of others diagnosed with lung cancer tested for EGFR mutations.  This has been more than a story for them.  It has saved their lives.  From rare disease diagnoses and therapies to the entire field of non-invasive prenatal testing, genomics has revolutionized medicine. 

The Internet of Biology Revolution-For Real This Time, with Brett Goldsmith, Cardea

Talk to anyone who’s been around diagnostics or blood sampling for long, and they’ll tell you that nanotechnology is nothing new.

Today’s guest, Brett Goldsmith, the Chief Technology Officer at Cardea, says he was involved in the nano revolution that was and then wasn’t 20 years ago. (The older veterans among us might date it back even further, to forty years ago.) So what are Brett and Cardea buzzing about early this year in a new Nature paper?

Biosensors.   They say thier new--and significantly cheaper--ones are capable of integrating the world of biology and digital that will give us instant access to the networks of biological information used by our bodies.  The sensors bypass our existing testing gadgets that use labels and lights and measure directly the biological interaction.  One can imagine "Googling" biological data about yourself.   The argument here isn't new, nor is the technology.  What is new and shown by the Nature paper is a dramatically changed economy of scale for producing the biosensors. Brett claims it is something along the lines of going from $120K down to just $20-30 each.

If you look at Moore’s Law and the dramatic reduction in the price of sequencing as what fed two revolutions, it does appear there’s a case to be made for a similar revolution to be had with biosensors and the possible applications they could enable.

What are the details of the paper? How do Cardea’s sensors work? To whom are they selling them now?

And what kind of data does Cardea have to put out to show the world that they are not Theranos No. 2?!

Gene and Tonic Predictions for 2019

Oops.  We still had some champaign around.  Our look to the year ahead.

2019

January 6th  The best selling non-fiction book on Amazon over the holidays has some strong mature genetics related material in it.   The second chapter of  Advice for Generation Z  is entitled,  “Don’t Take that Cyanide Pill Just Yet: Genetic Tests Are for Fun, Not for Real.”

February 12th  The Oxford English Dictionary adds “Crispred babies” to the lexicon.

Amy Harmon of the NYT on Race & Genetics, Women in Science

At the end of the year, we like to speak with a journalist who covers genetics about some of their stories.

Our audience may remember that back in our October Monthly Review with Nathan and Laura we talked at length about the topic of race and genetics. This was provoked by a few pieces in the New York Times written by Amy Harmon about a new wave of white nationalists using new genetic science to bolster their racism. In fact, talk of race and genetics rose to such a pitch at this year’s ASHG conference that they issued an unusual statement on the topic.

Here to discuss her three pieces on race and genetics (here, here, and here) and another provocative piece the following month on women in science is Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times, Amy Harmon.

 

George Church Has a Point. Do With the Messenger What You Will, Lulu and Nana Are Here.

When we first encounter Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s classic, the scientist has lost all his friends, his wife, his meaning in life because of his science. Now he is frozen half to death out on the sea ice chasing his creation of “gigantic stature” toward the North Pole. It’s the only thing he knows to do. Monster and creator, they are locked in an obsessive battle of existence, creation and loss, birth and death. They both know one thing surely. They have known it all along. There is no going back.

Illumina Concedes on Long Reads, Buys PacBio

At 1:02 pm today, there was a tremor in the world of genomics as it was announced that the two leaders in the field of sequencing have become one company. Goliath has opted to pick David up and put him on his shoulders. Upon first reaction, I'd say three things. 1. High quality long reads are the future of sequencing. Disrupting a standard carried for years in the drive toward the $1,000 genome of quantity over quality, PacBio stepped in and raised the bar for the technology of DNA sequencing.

September 2018 with Nathan and Laura: Studying the Same Genes and the Matt Fender Story

And here we were thinking it was a slow month!

We have two big stories today: first this philosophy of biology question about whether it’s a bad thing that we’ve been stuck circling the wagons ‘round the same ole genes. Is it just an economic question? Or is it that these are the most active genes, and so we need a meritocracy, as Nathan puts forth?

As if on time to answer this question, there’s a new project out this month to synthetically engineer 4,000 copies of a very studied gene, BRCA, which has Laura and other genetic counselors excited. As she explains, it will help with the problem of reducing variants of unknown significance.

And second, we discuss the fallout of Laura’s tour de force article in the New York Times and follow-up Beagle podcast about a young web developer, Matt Fender, who had a real scare with his 23andMe data. Theral says the story sounded an alarm at just the moment many of the field's KOLs are becoming relaxed about regulating DTC tests. Nathan says the story shows that the system is working.



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