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CRISPR for Human Embryos? Diseases, Yes – Designer Babies, No
Creating a race of super soldiers is off the table, too.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a precise method of gene editing. It can snip a gene out of the DNA sequence –say, a harmful mutation – then add a healthy gene to replace it. This new but exciting technique is being used in clinical trials to treat things like hereditary cancer. It could also be a godsend for certain genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs disease, among others. Experimental studies with cancer and blindness are slated to reap benefits this year.
Despite the great promise this new technique affords, there is controversy surrounding applying it to human embryos. One such concern is creating designer babies. Another is accidentally creating a hereditary disease and allowing it to enter the human genome. This could be passed down from parent to child, dooming future generations. But some fear that stifling regulation suppresses innovation and the march of progress. So, of course, there needs to be balance between regulation and freedom of exploration.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), aware of the growing debate, put together a committee of experts last year to consider the ethical quandaries the technique presents when applied to human embryos. It's just recently released its report, a full 261 pages, which suggests allowing CRISPR to be performed on embryos in certain instances, and barring others. The committee concluded that cures for serious diseases and disabilities should be allowed, especially when conventional medicine offers no “reasonable alternative.” But the advisory panel won’t abide designer babies or the creation of super soldiers.
The committee suggests opening the door a crack, and allowing gene editing on embryos for research on certain diseases.
Richard Hynes co-chaired the committee. He wrote that since the science is flying by at an outrageous clip, we should keep a tight grasp on it for now. “You want to have a good control of what is being done,” he wrote. Chinese scientists have already modified the DNA of five embryos as of 2015, using this technique. Sweden is also conducting advanced experiments, fueling the fear that the US could fall behind.
Many hailed the NAS committee’s move. This framework should allow for more cancer studies and those on genetic diseases, like retinal degeneration, which can lead to blindness. But some say, the guidelines are still too stringent. There are a lot of genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, or even Parkinson’s, which may benefit from CRISPR experiments. But the panel fears allowing a technique whose outcome isn’t entirely known.
University of Wisconsin ethicist Alta Charo was a co-chair of the advisory group. She said that although off-label uses, or those which a drug wasn’t intended for, are tolerated with pharmaceuticals commonly, gene editing of embryos would not allow such a practice. What’s more, a social consensus is needed before the gene editing of embryos becomes common practice. “It is essential for public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications,” said Charo. “And we need to have them now.”
Some fear that this technique could someday be used to add muscle tissue to a person’s body to make them stronger or faster, or neural manipulation will be performed to reap greater intelligence. Gene editing may even allow for certain anti-aging features to become available. This last one might be allowed as a sort of preventative medicine.
With these guidelines, Charo and colleagues were clear: you can use gene editing to undo illness but not enhance the human body. Some geneticists find the prospect of genetic enhancement “ethically inviolable.” Even so, the technique is not able to perform such feats, yet. “Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people," Charo said.
This research could create a backlash. Committee members point out the need for a societal consensus on the gene editing of embryos, before it becomes commonplace.
Should we continue to embrace individuality, or are we destined to edit out everything that makes us unique, creating a race of beautiful, bland, healthy geniuses, and in the end, losing heterogeneity? With it could go innovation, novelty, uniqueness, disruption, and creativity. After all, it is usually the mavericks, the marginalized, and the outliers that revolutionize society. Or would a startling divide be born, between those who could afford gene editing and those who couldn’t?
The philosopher Alan Watts once said that if we reached the point where we could design people, we should make as diverse a group of possible, so to have enormous flexibility. For who knows what kinds of people will best populate the late 21st century and beyond.
These guidelines posit a tight way of allowing the exploration of CRISPR for use in the human genome. Currently, the FDA bars the germline engineering, or gene editing, of human offspring. But the guidelines are meant as a crack of light, showing the way, but also a way of beginning the conversation of how we should proceed.
To learn more about the issues surrounding gene editing, click here:
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.