We need to talk about CRISPR

By Gesa Junge, PhD

You’ve probably heard of CRISPR, the magic new gene editing technique that will either ruin the world or save it, depending on what you read and whom you talk to? Or the Three Parent Baby, which scientists in the UK have created?

CRISPR is a technology based on a bacterial immune defense system which uses Cas9, a nuclease, to cut up foreign genetic material (e.g., viral RNA). Scientists have developed a method by which they can modify the recognition part of the system, the guide RNA, and make it specific to a site in the genome that Cas9 then cuts. This is often described as “gene editing” which allows disease-causing genes to be swapped out for healthy ones.

CRISPR is now so well known that Google finally stopped suggesting I may be looking for “crisps” instead, but the real-world applications are not so well worked out yet, and there are various issues around CRISPR, including off-target effects, and also the fact that deleting genes is much easier than replacing them with something else. But, after researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to change the mutated version of the MYBPC3 gene to the unmutated version in a viable human embryo last month, the predictable bioethical debate was reignited, and terms such as “Designer Babies” got thrown around a lot.

A similar thing happened with the “Three Parent Baby,” an unfortunate term coined to describe mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). Mitochondria, the cells’ organelles for providing energy, have their own DNA (making up about 0.2% of the total genome) which is separate from the genomic DNA in the nucleus, which is the body’s blueprint. Mitochondrial DNA can mutate just like genomic DNA, potentially leading to mitochondrial disease, which affects 1 in 5000-10000 children. Mitochondrial disease can manifest in various ways, ranging from growth defects to heart or kidney to disease to neuropsychological symptoms. Symptoms can range from very mild to very severe or fatal, and the disease is incurable.

MRT replaces the mutated mitochondrial DNA in a fertilized egg or in an embryo with the healthy version provided by a third donor, which allows the mitochondria to develop normally. The UK was the first country to allow the “cautious adaption” of this technique.

While headlines need to draw attention and engage the reader for obvious reasons, oversimplifications like “gene editing” and dramatic phrases like “three parent babies” can really get in the way of broadening the understanding of science, which is difficult enough as it is. Research is a slow and inefficient process that easily gets lost in a 24-hour news cycle, and often the context is complex and not easily summed up in 140 characters. And even when the audience can be engaged and interested, the relevant papers are probably hiding behind a paywall, making fact checking difficult.

Aside from difficulties communicating the technicalities and results of studies, there is also often a lack of context in presenting scientific studies – think for example of chocolate and red wine which may or may not protect from heart attacks. What is lost in many headlines is that scientific studies usually express their results as a change in risk of developing a disease, not a direct causation, and very few diseases are caused by one chemical or one food additive. On this topic, WNYC’s “On The Media”-team have an issue of their Breaking News Consumer Handbook that is very useful to evaluate health news.

The causation vs. correlation issue is perhaps a little easier to discuss than big ethical questions that involve changing the germline DNA of human beings because ethical questions do not usually have a scientific answer, let alone a right answer. This is a problem, not just for scientists, but for everyone, because innovation often moves out of the realm of established ethics, forcing us to re-evaluate it.

Both CRISPR and MRT are very powerful techniques that can alter a person’s DNA, and potentially the DNA of their children, which makes them both promising and scary. We are not ready to use CRISPR to cure all cancers yet, and “Three Parent Babies” are not designed by anyone, but unfortunately, it can be hard to look past Designer Babies, Killer Mutations and DNA Scissors, and have a constructive discussion about the real issues, which needs to happen! These technologies exist; they will improve and eventually, and inevitably, play a role in medicine. The question is, would we rather have this development happen in reasonably well-regulated environments where authorities are at least somewhat accountable to the public, or are we happy to let countries with more questionable human rights records and even more opaque power structures take the lead?

Scientists have a responsibility to make sure their work is used for the benefit of humanity, and part of that is taking the time to talk about what we do in terms that anyone can understand, and to clarify all potential implications (both positive and negative), so that there can be an informed public discussion, and hopefully a solution everyone can live with.


Further Reading:


National Geographic

Washington Post


Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy:

A paper on clinical and ethical implications

New York Times (Op-Ed)


Beyond Neuromania

By Celine Cammarata

As someone within the field, it seems to me that neuroscience – in some form or another – appears in the media nearly every day. Indeed the term “neuromania”, originally coined by Raymond Tallis, has come into use to describe both the lofty claims made about the power of neuroscience to answer nearly every question and the general mainstream media frenzy surrounding the field. Scholars have paid increasing attention to this and it is often regarded as a problem, but more recent work suggests that despite the mania, neuroscience is still not widely understood or even considered by the public at large. So does all the hype conceal a true lack of public interest?

It’s undeniable that neuroscience is the target of extensive and potentially problematic media attention. In a 2012 Neuron editorial, O’Connor, Reese and Joffe examined the coverage of neuroscience-related topic in six UK newspapers from 2000-2010 and found that not only did the number of articles related to brain research nearly double from the early to the late 2000s, but the topics also changed and the implications of neuroscience research was often exaggerated. Whereas in the past neuroscience was generally reported on in relation to physical pathology, the authors found that in their sample the most common context for discussing neuroscience was that of brain enhancement and protection – topics that are both more widely applicable to a broad audience and that suggest a newly emerging sense of ownership over ones’ brain.  O’Connor et al describe that “although clinical applications retained an important position in our sample, neuroscience was more commonly represented as a domain of knowledge relevant to ‘‘ordinary’’ thought and behavior and immediate social concerns. Brain science has been incorporated into the ordinary conceptual repertoire of the media, influencing public under- standing of a broad range of events and phenomena.”

Such issues are also highlighted in Satel and Lilienfeld’s 2013 book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in which the authors explore – and lament – the at times unrestrained application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer questions from “Pepsi or Coke?” to “does free will exist?”. The tantalizing ability to see the brain has carried neuroscience into the realms of marketing, politics, law and more, not to mention changing the way we think about more standard brain research topics such as addiction. But, the authors point out, pictures of a brain alone can not address every level of analysis and are not inherently of greater scientific value than are other research methodologies. Tracking the physical footprint of a desire, attitude, or propensity in the brain does not in and of itself tell you why or how these things emerged, nor can it be necessarily used to assign guilt, decide what is a “disease” and what not, or determine how people choose their politicians – and yet this is precisely what neuroscience is often touted to do.

Both of these works, and many others, are based on the premise that neuroscience has become markedly pervasive, nearly omnipresent. Fascinatingly, though, the brain craze seems to stop short of making a final leap from the media to public consciousness. To be sure, public interest in neuroscience does exist – someone must be buying the growing number of brain-centered books popping up at Barnes and Nobel, right? – but a 2014 paper by the same authors as the Neuron piece found that the public in general is not nearly so interested in neuroscience as the media frenzy and emergence of the brain in societal matters might suggest.

To probe how everyday citizens think about neuroscience, the authors conducted open-ended interviews where a sample of Londoners, chosen to span age, gender and socioeconomic divides, were asked to share what came to mind when they considered research on the brain. These interviews were then examined and the themes touched upon quantified, and the results showed clear indication that neuroscientific research has largely failed to penetrate into the mindset of the public at large. Participants consistently indicated that they thought of brain research as a distant enterprise quite removed from them, performed by some unknown “other” (who was consistently described as a man in a white lab coat). Brain research was widely convolved with neurological medicine and brain surgery, and was almost entirely assumed to focus on medical application – the concept of basic science on cognition, emotion, or other mental phenomena appeared nearly unheard of.

Consistent with this, although most participants were quick to tag brain research as “interesting, they also reported that it was not of particular interest to them specifically except in the context of illness. That is, above all the brain was something that might go wrong, and unless it did participants gave it little thought at all. The authors connect this to an earlier concept of “dys-appearance,” the idea that much of the body is inconspicuous and ignored so long as it is healthy, and only attracts attention when there is some kind of dysfunction.

Based on these finding, O’Connor and Joffe concluded that despite rapid advancement and intrusion of neuroscience into more and more areas of inquiry, research on the brain nonetheless continues to have little relevance to the public’s daily lives. As they put it, “heightened public visibility should not be automatically equated with heightened personal engagement.”

So is neuroscience flooding our popular culture, or simply washing up then falling away like a rolling wave, never really lasting in our overall societal consciousness? For the moment, it appears to be both. Perhaps the concern over “neuromania” need not be so heated, but also perhaps we need to do more to understand how our work can take the extra step to become more relevant to those outside the lab.

Spreading the Wealth: The Importance, and Challenge, of Disseminating Science

Celine Cammarata

The relationship between scientists and the broader public is not always an easy one; many outside the field view science as somewhat unapproachable, while researchers are generally not trained to communicate their work to non-scientists and may find such activities prohibitively time consuming.  Addressing these issues in a recent manifesto aimed directly at investigators, neuroscientist and author David Eagleman gives a compelling argument as to why scientists should strive for greater public dissemination of their work.

While acknowledging the challenges of sharing research with the public, Eagleman provides a systematic series of reasons why doing so is nonetheless worthwhile and important.  Some of Eagleman’s reasons focus on Continue reading “Spreading the Wealth: The Importance, and Challenge, of Disseminating Science”

Of Mice and Monkeys (and Scientists)

Celine Cammarata

For many researchers in biomedical sciences, the use of animal models is an integral part of daily work and crucial to advancing knowledge.  While most investigators are well aware of the threat posed to such advancement by animal rights extremists, a recent editorial in Nature Neuroscience cautions that more attention should be paid to the subtler ways in which animal rights activists are impeding research, such as making it prohibitively difficult to transport research animals to institutions or pushing to ban use of individual species.  Continue reading “Of Mice and Monkeys (and Scientists)”