Monday, January 1, 2018

Last Call For Blue Genes

2018 may be the year the gene editing technology known as CRISPR starts becoming reality in human trials, and while there are some very ambitious plans out there for the science, I'm thinking this is another case of eyes being too big for the task at hand, and there's going to be some sort of political and ethical movement to clamp down on CRISPR if it's as powerful as the proponents say. 

Ever since 2012, when researchers first discovered that bacterial immune systems could be hijacked to edit DNA in living creatures, CRISPR has been hailed as a maker of revolutions. This was the year that prediction felt like it was starting to come true. U.S. scientists used the CRISPR gene editing technique to treat a common genetic heart disease in a human embryo. Many more diseases were successfully treated in mice using CRISPR. Hell, a particularly enthusiastic biohacker even spontaneously injected himself with muscle-growth genes while giving a talk at a conference.

But if 2017 was the year that the potential of CRISPR began to come into focus, 2018 may be the year that potential begins to be realized.

Next year, the first human trials of CRISPR-based treatments in the U.S. and Europe are slated to begin.

This month, biotech firm CRISPR Therapeutics became the first to submit a clinical trial application to European regulators. Tests are set to begin next year for its therapy that combines CRISPR gene editing and stem cell therapy to treat the blood disorder beta thalassemia. CEO Samarth Kulkarni told Gizmodo that the company also plans to file an application to conduct a clinical trial using a similar therapy to treat sickle cell disease in the first half of 2018. “In 2018, the first human is going to get dosed with CRISPR in the clinic,” Kulkarni told Gizmodo. “And we’re going to be the first ones to do it.”

Both disorders are genetic, caused by mutations to the genes that produce hemoglobin, a protein essential to ensuring that red blood cells ferry oxygen throughout the body. Without that oxygen, people can suffer from severe anemia, developmental delays, damage to organs, and pulmonary hypertension. The idea is extract stem cells from patients’ bone marrow and correct the faulty genes with CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that allows scientists to cut and paste tiny snippets of genetic code. Then those edited cells would be infused back into the body, where they would multiply, eventually outnumbering the diseased cells. Sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia are good candidates for CRISPR because in many cases, they are caused by a mutation to one single DNA letter.

At Stanford, a different spin on using CRISPR to treat sickle cell disease is also moving toward clinical trials. Matthew Porteus, who heads the research, said that his group expects to file a clinical trial application with the FDA by the end of 2018 and begin trials in 2019. “Our New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to gather the data so we can file a [trial application] by the end of the year, so we can start a clinical trial in 2019,” Porteus told Gizmodo. “We just need to check off all the boxes.”

Chinese scientists, meanwhile, used CRISPR for the first time on a human in 2016, and conducted a second human trial this year, setting off a biomedical duel between the U.S. and China and sparking concerns that the trials were irresponsibly premature. The first U.S. human CRISPR trial was slated to begin this summer at the University of Pennsylvania, after receiving a regulatory stamp of approval to proceed last year. It is unclear what has caused that trial’s delay.

Porteus said that he expects 2018 will bring many more preclinical studies demonstrating how CRISPR might be used to treat different diseases. In 2017, there were several such studies, addressing devastating diseases and conditions such as Huntington’s disease, Lou Gherig’s disease, and an inherited form of hearing loss in mice.

“There is going to be a lot of behind-the-scenes work of turning those into a real clinical protocol,” Porteus said. He also predicted 2018 will see applications for more clinical trials, though most likely ones the involve simply deleting a problematic gene rather than correcting it.

If anything, I expect ridiculous legal limitations on the science just to protect the profit margins on the treatment.  Gene therapy clinics may be a near future sci-fi staple plot point these days in both novels and games, but this is what we're looking at if the CRISPR people are right, and man that's a huge, huge "if" we're talking about.

Rarely does that kind of technology end well in the stories. Either it's way too dangerous, or made impossible to afford for everyone except the ultra rich, and you'll excuse me if I don't believe the current administration would be capable of recognizing the potential social and ethical dangers.

But then again, the future of CRISPR may very well be not up to America at all.

New Year, Same Dear Leader

So good news and bad news on North Korea as we begin the new year. The good news is that Kim Jong Un seemed pretty eager to talk to South Korea as the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang are only six weeks away and the Olympics seems to be a good excuse to get together and talk stability on the peninsula.  The bad news is Kim's bragging about the new "nuclear button" installed on his desk at work.

Kim Jong Un on Monday warned the United States that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk ready for use if North Korea is threatened, but offered an olive branch to South Korea, saying he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.
After a year dominated by fiery rhetoric and escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Kim used his televised New Year’s Day speech to declare North Korea “a peace-loving and responsible nuclear power” and call for lower military tensions on the Korean peninsula and improved ties with the South.

“When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment,” Kim said. “Both the North and the South should make efforts.”

Kim said he will consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics Games to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

“North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we wish the Games will be a success. Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility,” Kim said.

South Korea said it welcomed Kim’s offer to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games and hold talks with the South to discuss possible participation.

“We have always stated our willingness to talk with North Korea any time and anywhere if that would help restore inter-Korean relations and lead to peace on the Korean peninsula,” a spokesman for the presidential Blue House said.

“We hope the two Koreas will sit down and find a solution to lower tensions and establish peace on the Korean peninsula.”

Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee, said the organization welcomed participation by the North Koreans.

“The (organizing committee) will discuss relevant matters with the South Korean government as well as the International Olympic Committee,” he said in a statement.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said North Korea’s participation will ensure safety of the Pyeongchang Olympics and proposed last month that Seoul and Washington postpone large military drills that the North denounces as a rehearsal for war until after the Games.

At least it's something.  Lord knows South Korea can't count on the US anymore, so I'm sure they're eager to take full advantage of Pyongyang's overtures on this.  Hell, if I were Kim, I'd rather talk to Seoul than Washington anyway.  Maybe this will end up a good thing in the long run.

We'll see where this goes.

Starting Off The New Year Right

It's January 1, meaning a whole host of changes to state laws take effect today, among them 18 states are bumping up their minimum wages.

Many of the wage hikes are phased-in steps toward an ultimately higher wage, the product of ballot initiatives pushed by unions and workers rights groups over the last few years.

The minimum wage in Washington state will rise to $11.50 an hour, up 50 cents and the highest statewide minimum in the nation. Over the next three years, the wage will rise to $13.50 an hour, thanks to a ballot measure approved by voters in 2016.

Mainers will see their minimum wages rise the most, from $9 an hour to $10 an hour, an 11 percent increase. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 that will eventually raise the wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont will see their minimum wages increase by at least 50 cents an hour. Smaller increases take effect in Alaska, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said states have been more willing to raise minimum wages because those who take low-wage jobs are more likely to be better educated now than they were in the past, a sign of an economy where fewer high-wage jobs are available.

"As the population of low wage workers has become a bit more upscale, many places are willing to adjust their minimum wages, especially given the pervasive research that supports moderate increases," Bernstein said in an interview. "States and localities have been increasingly willing to raise their own minimum wages as the federal value has been stuck at $7.25."

Well, mostly blue states, at least.  Around here, Kentucky and Indiana remain stuck at $7.25, Ohio will edge up from $8.15 to $8.30.  Plenty of cities will see boosts to wages, mostly on the West Coast, while half of US states as of today now have laws preventing cities from raising minimum wages above state figures.

Ohio is getting a minimum wage increase ballot initiative, as is Michigan, that could be on the ballot in November.  We'll see.  But at least some states recognize that $7.25 an hour isn't a livable wage.
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