Tag Archives: curing disease

The First CRISPR Patients Are Living Better: Why That Matters After 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.

While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.

We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.

There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked about in the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.

Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.

One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.

Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.

NPR: First Patients To Get CRISPR Gene-Editing Treatment Continue To Thrive

At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.

All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.

The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.

“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”

Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.

Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.

This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.

That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.

It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?

I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.

We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.

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Six Technologies The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic Could Accelerate

Humanity is capable of amazing feats when given the right incentive and circumstances. The problem is that humanity is also rather stubborn when it comes to incentives and exceedingly evasive when it comes to changing circumstances. We’ll go the extra distance and beat the odds eventually. We just need to be dragged kicking and screaming for a while.

When it comes to the ultimate incentives and circumstances, few check more boxes than a global pandemic. I don’t think I need to belabor how bad the ongoing Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has been. Even without media distortions and political agendas, there’s no getting around the damage it has and continues to inflict.

People are dying.

People suffering.

Societies and economies are teetering on the brink of collapse.

This is not a tenable situation and one nobody wants to see again. As bad as it is, there might be one silver lining to this global tragedy. It could help accelerate the development of technology that was already in the works, but lacked the necessary motivation to develop faster.

What follows are a few technologies that I believe this horrible pandemic might help in the sense that it’ll add some urgency. Nobody wants to see a mess like this again. Whether you’re rich, poor, powerful, or powerless, we have every reason to find new ways of preventing these plagues before they happen and these technologies are instrumental in doing just that.


Artificial Intelligence (Not Necessarily The Advanced Kind)

It’s impossible to overstate the potential benefits of artificial intelligence. I’ve certainly made a concerted effort when writing about it in the past. However, in the context of battling plagues, we don’t necessarily need the kind of super-advanced, super-intelligent AI to provide some of those benefits. When it comes to combating plagues, we don’t need an AI to be as intelligent as a human. We just need it to help us combat deadly disease.

This can be done without the kind of AI that finds its way into Skynet or Hal 9000. An AI that can better-analyze genetic data, run simulations on possible treatments, and track the spread of a disease can do plenty to prevent or mitigate future plagues. If it can just help us identify and isolate new cases in a short span of time, then that alone could save millions.

At a certain point, AI could get powerful enough to calculate entire treatment programs once it has the genetic data of a pathogen or condition. After this global, well-publicized crisis, it’ll have plenty of data to work with.


Space-Based Broadband Internet

When it comes to dealing with pandemics, the incentives don’t stop at treating the disease. Given all the closures and cancellations caused by COVID-19, we now know how challenging it is to endure an extended quarantine, especially for kids with no school and sports fans with no sports.

Enduring this crisis has revealed just how critical it is to have a strong, robust internet connection. It may not treat the disease, but it makes the measures recommended by the authorities more bearable. The problem is our current infrastructure for the internet is badly in need of upgrades and its role in helping us function has been made abundantly clear during this crisis.

For work, play, and just avoiding crippling boredom, we need a better internet. That’s where space-based internet, like the ones being developed by companies like FaceBook and Google come in. The idea is as simple as it is awesome. Use satellites and other high-flying crafts to deliver data more efficiently and reliably.

There are a few space-based internet service providers now, but they’re incredibly limited. This crisis, which needs reliable internet for so many reasons, might help pick up the pace in refining this technology. At the very least, it will allow people to binge-watch Netflix from the summit of Mount Everest.


Nanoparticle Vaccines

On the medical side of things, this crisis should go a long way towards teaching people the importance of vaccines. While I don’t doubt the anti-vax crowd will find an excuse to protest, even those skeptical of modern medicine can’t deny the need for better preventative measures for these treatments. Unfortunately, vaccine technology has been stagnant for decades.

This pandemic will hopefully change that and not a minute too soon. The current process for producing a vaccine is long and cumbersome, taking upwards of two years. It’s a process that has a lot of room for improvement. That’s where technology like nanoparticles come in.

The key to any medical treatment is the effectiveness of the delivery system. Vaccines have always had to take a messy path, but nanoparticles could change that. Instead of relying on the biological equivalent of a blunt instrument, nanoparticles could become biological smart-bombs, targeting pathogens with the precision we need to keep them from ever becoming pandemics.

Anti-vaxxers who refuse these just have a death with.


Gene Editing/Synthetic Biology

Not unlike vaccines, gene editing and synthetic biology stand to get a major boost from this crisis. I’ve written about gene editing tool like CRISPR in the past. I’ve touted it as a tool that could potentially treat all infectious disease, especially when combined with synthetic biology. That might have been hyperbole, but I stand by my claims on it’s potential.

Gene editing can do more than make pet fish glow. In theory, it can tweak and rewrite the DNA of organism, including the viruses that infect us. The challenge is refining the procedure so that we know how to modify diseases or create entirely new organisms that combat them through synthetic biology.

It’s not a small challenge. I’m grossly oversimplifying the obstacles in refining this technology into something usable. However, those obstacles are not insurmountable. It just requires time, resources, and motivation. After being economically and socially ravaged by a global pandemic, these efforts will have a lot more urgency.


Immersive Virtual Reality

While the scientists and doctors take up the challenge of fighting future pandemics, the rest of us are tasked with enduring the boredom they incur. I’ve noted before how boredom could become the plague of the future. I hope those stuck at home for weeks on end are done doubting me.

The entertainment industry may never be as vital as the medical industry, but it’ll play an important role in helping people stay sane, calm, and kind. Binge-watching TV and playing video games is helpful, but there’s room for improvement. At the end of the day, you’re still just sitting on a couch, looking at a screen.

To keep things both interesting and active, the development of virtual reality should get a major boost. It has existed for years and grown considerably from the days of the Virtual Boy, but it has room for improvement. Thanks to improving computer technology and more advanced interfaces like Neuralink, the experience could become even more immersive.

Beyond simply treating boredom, it could allow a greater sense of active engagement, which is critical when everyone is practicing social distancing. Being isolated and cut off from human contact may help temper a plague, but it’s not healthy. A way to immerse yourself in a realistic environment could help make future quarantines more bearable while also opening a new market, which gaming companies are sure to exploit.


Sex Robots (Obviously)

Does this one really need an explanation? When you’re stuck inside, horny, and run out of things to binge-watch, things are going to happen. Even if your partner or significant other is with you, they might get sick and you might feel lonely. Given how pandemics tend to temper the market for sex workers, a sex robot might be the best and only option.

If at least one company or horny entrepreneur hasn’t realized that by now, I’ll be shocked. The market for sex robots has been growing in recent years. After enduring a pandemic and weeks of social isolation, that market has likely grown. People rarely forget big global events like this. They’ll remember how lonely they were and that memory will fuel the development of sex robots more than any libido.

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Why Designer Babies Are NOT The Same As Eugenics

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As much as I celebrate advances in science and technology, I don’t deny there are instances where some advances it leads to unintended consequences. I’m sure the inventor of ski masks knows that all too well. In many cases, these missteps and mishaps are part of the ongoing challenge to use these advances responsibly. It’s akin to a maturation process that is often difficult, but still necessary.

In some cases, however, certain advances bring out some of humanity’s ugliest traits. Whether it’s a tool or an insight into the natural world, certain people who may or may not be malicious will use science to further a nefarious agenda. Of all the sciences that brought out the worst in humanity, eugenics is probably the most well-known.

The concept, itself, is not entirely abhorrent. If you look up the definition, this is what comes up.

The practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition.

On paper, that has some objective merit. The world is a chaotic, dangerous place that’s constantly changing. In some cases, humanity is causing that change. If we’re to survive on a planet in which 99 percent of the species that have ever lived have gone extinct, it makes sense to improve our collective genetics so that we’re best equipped to survive.

Unfortunately, the details surrounding eugenics were permanently tainted when it became the preferred excuse for atrocities by the Nazis. Even before that, it was a popular talking point among racists seeking to marginalize or outright exterminate the impact of certain minorities within a society. At one point, there were organizations dedicated to promoting eugenics through forced sterilization and miscegenation laws.

The legacy of eugenics is so ugly that it’s almost synonymous with some of the worst acts of bigotry ever committed. When people think of eugenics, they don’t think of advancing human biology to make it more robust. They imagine racist tyrants forcibly sterilizing undesirable minorities in the hopes that they eventually die out in a silent genocide.

There’s no question that this form of eugenics is abhorrent. The way it was practiced throughout the 20th century was a perversion of science and technology. We would be wise to remember that as we make bigger and bolder advancements in science, especially for those related to biotechnology.

It’s here where the ugly legacy of eugenics seems destined to clash with science once more. In late 2018, news broke of a groundbreaking advance in biotechnology when a scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. I went out of my way to note why this is a huge deal in the history of our species, but it’s also sparking distressing concerns related to eugenics.

Thanks to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, it’s now possible to edit the human genome with the same ease as copying and pasting text from a website. That has sparked concerns that it will be used to purge certain undesirables from the human population, just as was attempted with eugenics.

Logistically, there’s no reason why tools like CRISPR couldn’t be used to edit the genome of every child before they’re born to ensure they look a certain way. Granted, it would require some fairly invasive policies, but that has never stopped ambitious governments in the past. As these tools are refined, it’ll only get easier to pursue the kinds of racist policies that deplorable bigots in the past once favored.

However, this is not a fair association, nor is it constructive in addressing the legitimate issues surrounding the use of CRISPR and so-called designer babies. Linking this technology to eugenics is akin to blaming every nuclear physicist for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not just because the potential of this technology is so great. The intent behind it differs considerably with that of eugenics.

That intent shows in the specifics of the first two genetically modified children. These children were not born out of a desire for racial superiority. The modifications made to their genome was intended to make them more resistant to HIV/AIDS infection. That’s an objective good. Healthier babies who are more resistant to disease is a benefit to our species, as a whole.

In addition, this feat was achieved without sterilizing someone against their will or without the consent of the parents. While there were some legitimate ethical concerns, the underlying purpose has little to do with furthering racial goals and more to do with combating disease and suffering. This is where the difference between eugenics and designer babies at its most stark.

Eugenics, historically speaking, was almost always pursued with a racial agenda. It never stopped at just treating disease. Its advocates sought more than just health. They sought superiority. That’s not how the emerging technology surrounding CRISPR is being used. It’s following a similar path to that of in-vitro fertilization, which was subject to plenty of controversy as well.

Like any technology, there are going to be legitimate concerns mixed in with the doomsayers. With CRISPR and designer babies, the concerns will be greater because the stakes will be higher. We’re not just talking about a technology that will reduce the risk of inherited diseases. This technology could fundamentally change the human race in a very literal sense.

Designer babies, much like their in vitro counterparts, will be part of that change. Regardless of how someone feels about endowing a baby with the genetics of Tom Brady and Stephen Hawking, the potential for good is just too vast. Thousands of people die every year because of diseases that are written into their genes. This technology, if properly refined, could render such suffering a distant memory.

Hesitating with this technology because of potential links to eugenics will only prolong this suffering. In the same way countless individuals wouldn’t be alive without in-vitro fertilization, there are countless people who aren’t alive now because this technology wasn’t available to help them.

Treating diseases and ensuring the health of the next generation is a common good that eugenics corrupted with racist ideology. It attempted to do that by using science and technology to more effectively oppress their chosen enemies. That is radically different than editing the genes of a child so they don’t succumb to certain diseases.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. At some point, someone will try to abuse this technology and it’s likely that person will have unpopular views on eugenics. There will also be a point where this technology isn’t just used to treat diseases. It will also be used to implement traits and abilities within people that aren’t possible by natural means.

The look of a baby who never has to worry about genetic diseases.

The merits and ethics of such genetic tampering are definitely worth discussing, but references to eugenics will only serve to derail that discussion for all the wrong reasons. Like it or not, humans will need to keep adapting and growing in our chaotic world. If we ever hope to outlast our planet and even our sun, we can’t be bound by genetic constraints or outdated attitudes.

That makes developing genetics technology all the more vital. Eugenics was a bad ideology that hijacked a lot of good science. Whatever your opinion may be on designer babies and improving the human genome, the technology is here. Children born of this technology have arrived. The benefits are vast, provided we have the right approach.

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