Global transhumanist leader Natasha Vita-More on human germline modification

Natasha Vita-More - 2015In my continuing series of conversations with thought leaders related to heritable human modification, today’s post is an interview with Natasha Vita-More, a pioneer in the transhumanist movement and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Humanity+ (H+), the global transhumanist organization.

Where do you see transhumanism today? Has it changed over the years? What are the primary areas of focus today?

NVM: Transhumanism is no longer a subculture and an emerging academic discipline.  It has become a worldview that represents the currents in global society. These currents reflect the sciences, technologies, and innovations that are changing the way people do things—their health, lifestyle, communication and self-awareness, and adapting.Transhumanism_h+_2.svg

Looking back over the years, transhumanism introduced the first strong social interest in the benefits and possible risks of emerging and accelerating technologies.  The scientific research on human physiology and cognition, developments in biotechnology, along with who expanded on the notion of Moore’s Law formed the basis on which many of these critical ideas were based. The technological Singularity formed a related but different trajectory for deeper contemplation of humanity’s future, and alerted focused research on artificial intelligence, which fostered AGI (artificial general intelligence), and the new connections between fields that developed forming the loci for generating ideas for delivering novelty. The trends toward entrepreneurial practices, being an innovator, starting a company, making a change in the world brought about this current culture that aims to educate and inspire others to think about what is needed today to help us arrive into the future, safely. The focus changed from being far future visionary toward sustaining life long enough to get there. The means that adapting to the challenges of change is necessary to evolve.

Transhuman Visions 2-14
The primary focus is twofold. First, to progress forward, it’s necessary to have a thoughtful start. Unravel the confiscated knowledge and make it available and accurate as possible. The information that transmitted through the journalistic media, postmodernists wrestling with a new philosophical worldview, and info centers like Wikipedia (which is more of a bible of edited stories than a formative recording of facts) that chalkboard, erase and rewrite data are all mishaps in the branding of transhumanism. Second, to be forward, inclusivity and diversity are essential. This means that transhumanism exists in a world of different values and can respect others but to hold its own in the larger arena of policy making, laws and legislation. This reflects the basis for the Proactionary Principle, Morphological Freedom, and the Regenerative Generation.

Do you see genetic self-editing as an important part of transhumanism?

NVM: This is a loaded question. On the one hand DIY and QS are stables in the generation of innovators who see the body as a makerspace. On the other hand, messing with genes can have terrible consequences. Why would a person want to mess with their genes unless the practice was viable, ethical, and safe? But then sexual reproduction is a type of genetic self-editing not governed by legislation, the FDA, or AMA. But it is not 100% viable, ethical or safe. A person can be impregnated by force, or a person may transmit abnormalities in the sperm or egg causing a genetic disorder. In a society of self-responsibility of one’s body, and where access to medical and scientific information is accessible, it could become a field or business as a massively accelerated self-help trend. When looked at this way, techno-genetic self-editing may eventually pass through regulatory systems when it proves to be viable, safe, and beneficial, and a natural way to protect one’s sustainability.

What about human germline editing to produce healthier children, such as via CRISPR-Cas9 technology? Does that have a potential positive role for transhumanism and humanity? 

NVM: Most people want their children to be healthy, both mentally and physically. If a child has a horrific disease, to not remove the gene is simply wrong. It is far more immoral to allow a person – of any age – to exist in pain or suffering than to apply medical technologies to assist in their riddance of despair.

Would you be supportive of the use of such technology for enhancement, meaning not just for the correction of say a mutation that causes a disease, but also for making enhancements of potentially desirable traits such as intelligence, slow aging, strong bones, better muscles, etc.?

NVM: Yes, certainly, provided it is safe. Cancers ought to be caught and eradicated early on. But let’s consider what pharmacology and neuropharmacology offers today: for bone loss, currently the enhancements include calcium and vitamin D, and for more enhancements needs, Fosamax and Actonel. For muscle loss, current interventions include anaerobic exercise, and for more aggressively growth hormone, testosterone, and HRT. Enhancing intelligence is met with nootropics for an intelligence boost, but also the computer, smart phone, etc. do increase human intelligence because, even though they are external device, they interconnect with cognitive functions (memory, logic, calculation). The hypercognition probability will form a type of metabrain, whether it is an internal or external appendage to the brain.

Some people have made comparisons between transhumanism and eugenics: how do you feel about that kind of comparison? Is it valid? Is there a beneficial role for “positive eugenics” in the world today?

NVM: There is no comparison between transhumanism and the coercive manipulation of human beings. By its very nature, and certainly identified at its core, transhumanism values human rights. Human rights include individual freedom and the right to enhancement and the right never to be coerced to enhance.  This is human enhancement for healthy outcomes, based on the freedom of choice.

I think the word eugenics has too much of a vulgar taste in the mouths of humanity to make it positive. Historically, the horrific abuses to human kind at the hands of criminal minds are reprehensible to humanness. These abuses are inflicted by criminals who perform abusive acts – from cutting off a woman’s clitoris, to enslaving others with violent and egregious acts against their psychology and physiology. One might call this eugenics, but it really isn’t. It is a term allocated to the Germans under the influence of Hitler and who performed terrible, criminal acts against those they devalued.

Where do you foresee transhumanism being in the coming 5-10 years? How about in 25 years? Will there be transformative advances?

NVM: In the coming five to ten years, there will be outreach to inform the public about the challenges we all face. I like to think of it as the electronic grassroots of people realizing that they need to have more knowledge of what the late 20th century term NBIC means. Where is nanotechnology headed, and what is meant by nanomedicine; how can biotechnology protect and sustain human life; how can we protect our identities from black hat hackers and where is cognitive science headed? (Literally!) During this time frame people will become more self-aware of being healthy and active, and facing economic challenges as the baby boomer generation lives longer and find a need to be included in the social climate, rather than retire and be forgotten. Design plays an important leadership role because it sets the pace for usability and functionality of any product or process within all sectors.

In the next 25 years, many grand challenges will be tackled, with smart use of nanorobots to clean up the environment and to form protective molecular systems. The idea of a white cloud swarm could have important environmental attributes, such as forming a wall to protect a location from external dangers.  Expansive AI can integrate stale systems from task-based to solution-finding. A core issue is the protection of personal identity from black hats, and the growing need for forensic security. An area to concentrate on is the practice of “change fitness”, as we may all become athletes of life in exercising an ability to adapt to change.

Transhuman Politics is an area where we need visionary work. It may be a passing trend, but it could offer new insights to actually dealing with adversity.  Recently I was in France where I felt set up as being of a political persuasion rather than what I am — an independent, so I can look at this a bit objectively. I remember being elected on a transhumanist platform in 1992, in Los Angeles County, with a technology platform at a time of large anti-technology staging by Green Peace.  There were too many hard lies encircling witlessness.  Today the risk has become more human centric; either the human caused it or it will adversely affect the humanity. This ought not bog us down. To encourage progress, technology is crucial if grand challenges are to be tackled.  From the core values of transhumanism, others can apply their knowledge and experience to address the policies, laws, rules, legislation, of socio-economic-political conundrums.  And while there is certainly risk in the economic structure, if people gain new information bearing skills, societies can overcome obstacles.  The aim is to be informed.  Not easy, but well worth the effort.

Historic turning point for IPS cell field in Japan?

As many of you know, the pioneering, first of its kind IPSC clinical study in Japan has been suspended as I first blogged about here. 

In the comments section of that blog post there has been a helpful overall discussion that has involved Dr. Masayo Takahashi, the leader of the trial. It is great that Dr. Takahashi has been participating in this discussion and I commend her for that openness.RPE sheet_pr

This comment stream has been particularly important because the media have only minimally reported on this important development. There have been only a few articles in Japanese (several months ago) and as far as I know only one in English, which was posted in the last day or so in The New Scientist. Unfortunately The New Scientist article, as many have noted here, used an inflammatory title invoking a supposed “cancer scare” and some over-the-top language. Although that article had some bits of important info, the negative bias in the article made it overall not very helpful. Some readers of that article were likely confused by how it was written and the title.

The clinical study in question is for macular degeneration and involves the use of sheets of retinal pigmented epithelial cells (RPE) made from IPSC (e.g. see image above from RIKEN). Several of us have been discussing the suspension of this trial over on Twitter too including Dr. Takahashi (@masayomasayo). Some tweets by the community have been constructive. Others not so much.

Two main possible issues have come up in the discussion of the reasons for the trial stopping: (1) six mutations were detected in the 2nd patient’s IPSC and (2) significant regulatory changes are on the way in Japan that apparently in some way will delimit IPSC research there. Dr. Takahashi has indicated that the latter reason was the dominant factor in their decision to suspend the trial. The fact that the 2nd patient’s IPSC reportedly had six mutations that were not present in the original somatic cells warrants further discussion too. For example, when and how did these mutations arise? To be clear, however, I do not see (based on the information available) that there was a “cancer scare” by any stretch of the imagination as The New Scientist article had indicated.

At some point a restarted version of this study will likely focus on allogeneic use of IPSC perhaps via an IPSC bank being developed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. For many years the consensus, most exciting aspect of IPSCs in the field was considered to be their potential for use as the basis for powerful patient-specific autologous therapies. The apparent planned shift to non-autologous clinical use of IPSC in this case raises the question of how it would be superior or substantially different to the use of hESC, other than that making IPSC does not involve the use of a leftover IVF embryo.

This development also raises a 2nd question as to whether there will be a domino effect now of other clinical studies or trials that are in the works using IPSC switching to allogeneic paths as well. In other words, is this a historic, turning point moment for the IPSC field in Japan overall away from an autologous path? Or is the switch here to allogeneic just a one time, one study decision? More info on the regulatory changes is needed to help clarify the answer to this question and the path forward as well.

Hopefully the regulatory body in Japan (Ministry of Education?) that has made or is making the relevant regulatory changes will announce them publicly in detail soon.  If that information is already out there (e.g. in Japanese on the web) perhaps someone can find it and we’ll post it here.

TGIF: Recommended Science & Medicine Weekend Reads

Happy The Elephant


With these recommendations I’m aiming for a diverse range of content and perspectives, some of which I may not agree with, but all of which are interesting.

Prostate Organoid from Stem Cells. More organoid news.

Why Do Glowing Sharks Glow? A cool piece from Ed Yong.

Damn. Inquiry into duplications reveals “multiple” image problems in tumor study in Cell Stem Cell.

Comment on Proposed Framework for NIH-Wide Strategic Plan from NIGMS’ Dr. Jon Lorsch

BioPolitical Times (CG&S). The Facts Behind #CRISPRfacts and the Hype Behind CRISPR

Stanford now offering an on-line stem cell course. Check it out.

Regulation of unproven stem cell therapies – medicinal product or medical procedure? from MacGregor, Petersen, and Munsie.

NYT journalist: I am not a neutral observer–can I still be a fair reporter? The Loneliest Elephant, by Tracy Tullis on Happy the Elephant (image above).

Applicant fantasizes about visiting the study section meeting during discussion of his grant application. DrugMonkey Blog Humor.

Judge dismisses cardiac stem cell researchers’ lawsuit against Harvard Anvsera suit.

Fantastic organoid voyage: views from inside a mini-organ

Fantastic VoyageDid you ever see the classic sci-fi movie, Fantastic Voyage?

In it, the heroes travel inside of the human body in a craft, observing all kinds of awesome biology in an up close and personal kind of way on route into the brain with the goal to do microsurgery of a sorts.

Even though this movie came out a year before I was born, I saw it later as a kid and found it captivating.

“What if we could travel inside the body or even inside organs?” I thought back then. It seemed like we could learn amazing things first hand.

A new technology called organoids or mini-organs kind of makes this possible today.

In fact, organoids are extra exciting because this technology allows us to make miniature version of organs and then do science on them. The organoids can be differentiated and grown, depending on the type you want to make, from pluripotent or adult stem cells or other sources of tissue.

Even though we cannot literally climb inside to take a look, we can do the next best thing using histology and advanced microscopy even on “living” organoids. In a great piece of science writing, Cassandra Willyard, talks us through all the various new kinds of human organoids: liver, kidney, brain, pancreas, stomach, lung, breast, and the list goes on including “guts” as per the quote from Hans Clevers at right from Willyard’s article. I love this quote.Hans Clevers

If we could shrink ourselves down and literally climb inside a human organoid, what would we see? What amazing things might we report on from this voyage?

In mini-brains we’d see neurons, synapses, glia, oligodendrocytes, and fiber tracts. We even might be witness to electrical activity in this mini-brain that represents actual rudimentary thought of a kind. Imagine seeing that “in person” from the inside.

Cerebral organoidsIn a mini-kidney or liver organoid, we might see all different kinds of cellular and tissue activities. If we dropped the equivalent of a micro bottle of vodka or tiny firecracker inside as a model of injury, we might see the organs kick into action to repair themselves.

In a breast organoid we might see milk production from the inside or the first signs of breast cancer formation. In a mini-lung, we could possibly see lung cancer germinate too or hike around inside airways such as bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli. A bio-spelunker.

Exploring inside a heart organoid you could feel what it is like to be inside of something very similar to a beating heart. Would you like the rhythm and beat or feel like there’s a constant earthquake?

Inside the organoids in the lab you don’t have to worry about some nasty immune cell trying to knock you off either.

Some of the labs focusing on organoid research have discovered important things about normal human development and disease from this work. The Madeline_Lancasterresearchers include teams from the labs of Drs. Hans Clevers, Jürgen Knoblich, Melissa Little, Takanori Takebe, and a growing number of others. The late Yoshiki Sasai did pioneering work in this area as well.

The postdocs and other trainees in these labs have done work that has changed our visions of what is possible in stem and developmental biology in a dish. For instance, Dr. Madeline Lancaster’s work on mini-brains has opened a lot of minds to all that is possible in brain neuroscience in a dish (see images above of a mini-brain and of Dr. Lancaster at right).

An organoid is not just a model system either, but also might have therapeutic potential. Tissues grown in 3-D that take on the form and function of real human organs even if in miniature form could form the basis of innovative therapies in the future as well.

I would say that so far in 2015 organoids are the most exciting development and some have argued they are most important new thing in the stem cell and developmental biology fields.

For past posts on this blog highlighting organoids you can read here.

Nita Farahany Interview on Human Germline Modification: Defining A Road Forward

Nita FarahanyThe topic of heritable human genetic modification has been heating up recently. Prominent scientists, ethicists, and legal scholars have being weighing in, and there is a range of attitudes. Some favor a complete, moratorium including even lab work, while on the other end of the spectrum there are those who have a more liberal perspective. Many of us fall in the middle somewhere.

I have been interested in having conversations with people with diverse views and posting them on this blog. You can see past interviews with Jennifer Doudna here and George Church here.

Duke Professor Nita Farahany, J.D., Ph.D has been one of the more prominent, public proponents of some forms of human germline modification. She has been in a number of debates arguing on the “pro-human modification side”, including just to cite one debate this one where she argued against prohibitions on genetically modified babies. I also recommend watching the video below where she debated Marcy Darnovsky of CG&S  and advocated for allowing human genetic modification. The way the debate framed it was, “Should we design our babies?” and Farahany argued the “yes” side. She has mainly focused on three-person IVF rather than nuclear editing such as by CRISPR-Cas9, but the latter has become increasingly feasible on a technical level and important as an area of discussion.

I reached out to Professor Farahany, who is also a member of the prestigious Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, to have a conversation about human germline modification. I found many of her answers to be intriguing and surprising.

PK: You’ve been characterized in various debates, to put it simply, as being on the side arguing the “pro-designer baby” case. Is that correct? And why?

NF: No. I’m in favor of mitochondrial transfer, but not nuclear gene editing at this time. We haven’t reached a point in the technology where nuclear gene editing could be done with an expectation of safety and efficacy. Still, the bright line between somatic and germline modification – it’s not tenable. Could I be convinced on nuclear modification in the future if there’s more information? Possibly. I’m not opposed to germline modification ever happening.

PK: What has made you more supportive of mitochondrial transfer compared to nuclear gene editing?

NF: The UK has taken the appropriate approach on mitochondrial transfer. They held meetings and hearings. They involved the public. The HFEA provided information. They engaged the Nuffield Bioethics Commission. Their process was thoughtful and considered. They made the right choice at the end of the day. I’d like us (in the U.S.) to follow that lead. We need to reconsider. I’m concerned that the alternative is people facing mitochondrial disorders turning to risky medical tourism.

PK: What specifically makes you feel differently about mitochondrial transfer versus CRISPR of nuclear genes?

NF: CRISPR is newer. And editing of nuclear genes raises greater ethical concerns. That being said, I don’t draw a bright line around it. The difference is where the technology is today. A place I could imagine nuclear gene editing being appropriate is if we know that there is a particular single polymorphism that creates an unhealthy condition and that with CRISPR technology we could replace the unhealthy portion with a healthy portion. We aren’t introducing any new traits in that case. I could imagine that could be a place for gene editing and if we also had adequate safety and efficacy information, I could possibly support that.

PK: Is mitochondrial transfer a form of heritable genetic modification? Some have argued it isn’t.

NF: Yes, it is germline genetic modification. The controversy has had less to do with the technology than to crossing the line to germline modification.

PK: A few months ago the first human embryo editing paper was published. One can fault the specific form of CRISPR methods they used, but they still found numerous problems such as off-target effects and mosaicism. What was your reaction to that paper?

NF: I’m unsurprised about the effects and that’s part of why it is too soon. We need to really understand the technology better. I’m in favor of using it in animal models. Then we could consider human work later based on what is found.

PK: Does the non-viable embryo aspect of that study make it less problematic?

NF: I wouldn’t be doing human embryo work at all today even in vitro in the lab. What would be reason to use human? There hasn’t been adequate democrat deliberation. Making the leap to humans is problematic. At this point we need to focus on animal studies. Even in nonviable human embryos there are ethical concerns.

PK: Let’s say we get to a point where we know CRISPR is safe in humans. Even if it is safe and effective, are there still other ethical issues?

NF: I personally would probably be in favor of it, but my opinion is not the basis of deciding as a whole whether we as a society do it. It’s already happening elsewhere. It’s figuring out how to enable progress.

PK: Some have raised the issue that the future genetically modified children cannot consent to being edited. Is that a valid issue?

NF: We can’t consent future children to be born to begin with. Children also don’t consent to parenting strategies. The idea that children cannot consent to gene editing is a bit of a red herring. It’s less about consent and more about the impact on that child and on the human population more generally.

PK: What about using genetics technology for prediction of offspring traits? I read that you and your husband had used the 23andMe genetic predictive tool for future offspring. What was that experience like?

NF: We thought it was interesting. It was very limited though. They predict traits such as lactose intolerance, eye color, wet earwax, and things like that. We now have a 6-month old daughter and we did compare the 23andMe predictions to what she is really like. If we could have had it be much more predictive we would have liked that. As it was, it was just more a novelty and fun.

PK: Lee Silver’s GenePeeks and other groups are already offering gamete screening kinds of tools in part based on predictive genetics. What’s your reaction?

NF: There are some ethical concerns there, but compared to gene editing it is relatively less problematic. If you are able to select between embryos and find the one that is the healthiest, that is appropriate. It’s about selection for health versus editing.

PK: How about the selection that is already happening of certain kinds of embryos based on genetic information? For example, what’s your view of PGD for embryo sex selection?

NF: I’m not troubled by sex selection in this country. In other countries it can be more problematic. For example, if there’s a one-child policy or gender imbalances in a society, sex selection can be much more of an issue. I think sex selection can be valuable and if, for example, a couple wouldn’t get pregnant with a child of a certain gender, but they will have another child of the other gender with the help of sex selection then that is positive.

PK: What about for PGD for trait selection?

NF: We already do this. We look for embryos without a heart condition or for ones without other conditions such as Tay-Sachs. What you probably mean is trait selection for things like eye color?

PK: Yes, that’s more the kind of trait selection I was meaning.

NF: Am I concerned about it? It’s a little weird. I have a hard time imaging I would care about my future child’s eye color. But if it really matters for someone, then I don’t find it problematic. If there are five embryos that are all healthy and one has brown eyes and the parents wants to choose that one, I don’t see that being a problem.

PK: But what if it goes further to say height, body mass, musculature, facial features, and such?

NF: Even if people do that (e.g. select for certain features), we won’t end up with eugenics. When people are given choices, they tend to choose to have children who look like them but a little better. Do we already have high expectations of our children? I think so.

PK: You mentioned eugenics. Does gene editing raise the risk of eugenics?

NF: We don’t have a pretty history of eugenics. It’s an appropriate concern to have in mind when we start talking about gene editing. Genetics is not so simplistic as we once thought. The ability to have an “effective eugenics” policy is much less likely than previously thought. I don’t think heritable human genetic modification will reawaken genetic determinism. It may reawaken a desire to improve the heath and prospering of future generations. Still we have to make sure it happens in a way that doesn’t create a society that favors determinism.

PK: What about not just selecting for certain traits, but actively using genetic modification for specific trait enhancement? Not just for genetic disease prevention, but for human “enhancement”?

NF: We are nowhere close to that being okay. But if we can show it is safe and efficacious…if we as a society are okay with editing, am I going to be the one to draw the line there? We’ll have to see. It also depends on the type of traits. Consider traits in the existing population versus totally different traits. For instance, if we can correct a person’s vision to 20-20 vision that is positive and different than say giving them UV vision or something else that is entirely outside the range of the normal human population.

PK: Looking to the future, there is slated to be an upcoming NAS meeting on germline human modification. Will that be sufficient to engage the public on this issue?

NF: What does democratic deliberation look like? A NAS meeting doesn’t engage a broad public audience. The NAS meeting will be positive, but more is needed. This issue (germline genetic modification) touches on pro-life, pro-choice, and people have concerns on “designer babies”. There are many issues here. What does society look like when we starting germline editing, traits start being edited, etc.? This justifies the need for a broader public audience.