Sunday, 12 March 2017

Darwin Day Lecture: Gene Editing with CRISPR

The regular Central Manchester monthly meeting was replaced by
a celebratory day at the Manchester Conference Centre to mark Darwin’s birthday on 12 February.   The event started at 1pm and was attended by 90 visitors.  There were a range of exhibits from Population Matters, RSPB, Amnesty International, thINK the book, Friends of the Earth, Barton Theatre Company and Peace Mala from a local primary school.  At 3.00pm the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir sung 'Seikilos Epitaph' and 'Darwin's Revolution' both arranged by former Musical Director Karl Kramer.  This was followed by a talk by Professor Matthew Cobb from the Life Sciences Department at the University of Manchester on "The Brave New World of CRISPR Gene Editing". 

Matthew introduced the topic by saying that he does not think that governments and institutions understand the importance and implications of recent developments in gene editing technology and the CRISPR technique which enables the precise editing of genes in virtually any organism, including humans.  CRISPR stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ which are segments of DNA containing short, repetitive base sequences, that  are the same in both directions.  Each repetition is followed by short segments of spacer DNA from previous exposures to foreign DNA (e.g., a virus or plasmid). The cell's genome can be cut at a desired location, allowing existing genes to be removed and/or new ones added to effect improvements in that DNA.  

Matthew explained that the ability to alter genetic material of organisms was developed in the 1970s  but involved molecular tinkering over long periods.  With the development of the CRISPR technique in 2013, modifications that took 18 months are now being done in 6 weeks.  Two sources claim to have devised it: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna from Berkeley, and George Church and Feng Zhang from Boston Broad Institute.  CRISPR genome editing has many applications in the areas of human gene therapy, somatic therapy, agriculture, and vector control.

The application to human gene therapy enables changes in human genes that alter the genetic make-up of the next generation.  There is a general reluctance to allow this on ethical grounds: CRISPR gene therapy is not legal in the UK, Australia or Canada.  In the USA the technique cannot be applied using federal money, but is permitted using private funds.  

CRISPR techniques can be applied in the treatment of illnesses without altering the genetic make up of the next generation by editing the body’s somatic cells.  This type of intervention is therefore not subject to the same ethical concerns as genetic manipulation of human embryos.  CRISPR therapies for blood based diseases, leukaemia, HIV and sickle cell anaemia may soon be trialled and the technique shows great promise as a treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  

CRISPR is also being used in agricultural research exploring its application to boosting crop resistance to pests thereby reducing the toll of livestock disease.

As to vector control, CRISPR could be used to introduce new genetic material into organisms that transmit disease, such as the malaria carrying mosquito, that both makes females sterile and accelerates its spread throughout the whole population, so as to effectively eliminate that population  in a few generations.

Work is currently being undertaken at Imperial College London on this.  The scientific community is proceeding cautiously in this area given the potential impact on ecosystems.     
Matthew concluded his presentation by talking about the ethics of using CRISPR.  He posed the question of whether it is ethical to limit its use and thus its potential in fighting disease, illness and poverty.  He was clear that its further application should be properly regulated.     

In the question and answer session, when asked if CRISPR could assist with curing dementia or cancer Matthew responded that the application of CRISPR to combat a disease will depend on whether the disease or condition has an identifiable genetic sequence that can be easily disabled.   Dementia and cancer do not have identifiable genetic sequences.   

When asked if CRISPR could be used to regrow organs, Matthew answered that this was possible in theory by using stem cells that can be grown into any organ.

Matthew thought the application of the CRISPR system will need a political system to buy-in to it and to enforce it and that the short-termism associated with most political systems makes this problematic.  

Matthew recommended the following sources on CRISPR: Ted Talks on CRISPR on YouTube, “CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberation” in Issues in Science and Technology, Volume XXXII Issue 1 Fall 2015,  “CRISPR-Cas9 ("Mr. Sandman" Parody) A Capella Science” on YouTube,  “Life’s Greatest Secret” by Matthew Cobb.

Assisted Dying

Pavan Dhaliwal is currently Director of Campaigns at the British
Humanist Association (BHA) and Vice President of the European Humanist Federation. She is shortly to be leaving the BHA but is trying to put in place a strategic plan before she leaves.

Following Brexit, this is not the most favourable time for campaigning on Humanist issues. The BHA has been supporting Northern Ireland Humanists who have called for safe access to legal abortions and an end to prosecutions following news that a woman has been reported to police and charged in connection with using abortion pills, bought on line. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except on grounds of health whereas women in England, Scotland and Wales have access to the morning after pill and, if necessary, safe abortions. Very few organisations support the woman and these cases have a disproportionate effect on lower income people.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Humanist marriages do not carry legal status unless a Registrar is present. Often couples have to also marry in a Registry Office. In Scotland Humanist marriages have legal status. It only requires a Statutory Instrument to legalise Humanist Marriages in the rest of the UK as the legislation has already gone through Parliament. The BHA are using the precedent of Scotland to enable the legislation here.

One of the core areas of campaigning is that of assisted dying. The BHA is the only organisation to request this for people with incurable suffering and not just the terminally ill. Individuals have the right to live their lives and make un-coerced decisions about their death. For those physically incapable of ending their own lives the compassionate thing would be to help. This is at present illegal. It is not the intention that legalisation of assisted dying would be a replacement for a patient centred approach to end-of –life care and it is thought that very few people would qualify. Humanist need good safeguards and Assisted Dying wold not be a replacement for palliative care.Individual cases considered were Tony Nicklinson (now dead) and Paul Lamb. The Paul Lamb case went to the Supreme Court with nine judges sitting, the first time all nine had sat. They decided that, although it was within their jurisdiction, Parliament should take the decision with legislation. As yet they haven’t done so. Paul Lamb is not yet ready to die, but he wants the right when the time comes. Many people take their lives early whilst they are still capable, and they would be able to live longer. At present people accompanying patients to Dignitas may be prosecuted.

There is no political will in Parliament for such legislation. The Church of England oppose it by talking about safeguarding life and slippery slopes. They avoid terms such as sanctity of life.

Unfortunately Pavan had to leave early to catch her train, but the meeting continued with a robust discussion of the issues.