Hateful politics infiltrate human genome editing debate in France

By Elliot Hosman

Summary.  A campaign calling for a moratorium on using CRISPR in human embryos was launched by a prominent French organization fighting for narrow understandings of life and family.

A recent campaign calling for a ban on “transgenic” human embryos was launched by one of France’s most prominent organizations fighting for “science”-backed “one-man-one-woman” families, and the exclusion of all other forms.

Stop Baby GMO Campaign

“Stop GMO Baby: Yes to therapeutic progress, no to transgenic embryos” (image via Alliance VITA).

Since March 24, more than 15,500 people in France have signed a Change.org petition started by Alliance VITA declaring (translated from French*):

“I ask my country to engage with all urgency to obtain an international moratorium – that is to say an immediate stop – on the genetic modification of human embryos, especially via the technique CRISPR-cas9.”

*all French materials and quotations presented in English in this post have been translated using Google and my college-level French. Suggested revisions to translations are welcome and will be noted. Alliance VITA offers some materials on its website in English.

In that time, volunteers have canvassed cities around France, handing out brochures explaining the breakthrough CRISPR genome editing technology, and tweeting pictures of their advocacy using Flickr and the hashtags: #StopBébéOGM, #ProtectHumanity, and #CRISPR-Cas9.

Alliance VITA’s opposition to using human gene editing for reproduction is widely shared, including by my organization, the Center for Genetics and Society. But a closer look at the Stop GMO Baby campaign in France reveals a troubling and at times explicitly hateful politics infiltrating the human genome editing debate. A polarization of the conversation about heritable human genetic modification along “right to life” and “natural family” fault lines threatens to derail public conversations about responsible regulation of science and medicine that serves the public interest.

Paul also recently flagged Alliance VITA’s Stop GMO Baby campaign, cautioning:

“I’m concerned that these campaigns that specifically target CRISPR could have negative effects on the freedom of us scientists to do responsible CRISPR research in the lab. … at least some of the motivation seems to be related to a “right-to-life” perspective. “

I share this concern, and we’re not alone. In a February article titled Gene editing: The next frontier in America’s abortion wars, the “last scientist in Congress” U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) told Politico’s Sarah Karlin that he’d been warned by scientists that “‘this issue will get all tied up over the abortion debate,’ interfering with the creation of ‘good policy decisions.’”

The Stop GMO Baby Campaign

Alliance VITA’s campaign materials on CRISPR take as their central point that CRISPR-Cas9 is an ethically neutral and promising technology that could help gene therapy, but that any use in human embryos or gametes is a red line no researcher in the world should cross. In their other words: “GM babies? No!” Here are some examples of their slogans and statements:

  • Campaign slogan: “CRISPR-Cas9: Yes to Therapeutic Progress, No to Transgenic Embryo!” (March 24, 2016) [Brochure PDF]
  • On February 16, 2016, Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb stated on Catholic television: “The technique poses no ethical problems on its own, it’s the application that does.” (YouTube)
  • Alliance VITA General Delegate-CEO Tugdual Derville commenting on Kathy Niakan’s application to the HFEA in January 2016:

“Although this technique might be promising for genetic therapy, Tugdual Derville reminds us that when applied to the human embryo: “the danger is to cause the emergence of custom-made babies, with pre-selected genetic criteria, heritable modifications, with unknown consequences for future generations. The human genome is part of our most precious “heritage of humanity.” Its integrity must absolutely be preserved for future generations.”

In March, Alliance VITA released a study they conducted finding that 76% of French people support gene therapy, but oppose using CRISPR to genetically modify embryos in vitro. Some of their data conform to a number of other recent studies. But the slipperiness of public opinion polls that Pete Shanks describes in a recent survey of public opinion of human heritable genetic modification is on point here, as the framing of questions may lead to an overstatement of the sanctity of the embryo for the people who polled their opposition.

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5 big picture stem cell trends at #ISSCR2016

Now that the ISSCR annual meeting is over, some overall stem cell trends are evident from the meeting in terms of the direction of the stem cell field. This was one of my favorite ISSCR meetings.

Translation expectation and upbeat tone. The overall vibe at the meeting was a sense of excitement and optimism about the field and where it stands in terms of advancing knowledge and translating stem cells to the clinic. There are challenges and debates over the different possible paths forward, but the general buzz at the meeting was positive and optimistic. It was also great to see quite an impact from patient advocates at the meeting including from several who were speakers.

There was also much more discussion of stem cell regulations and clinical translation even amongst more basic scientists than in past years. I expect the debate over stem cell clinical regulations will continue to be a major focus for the field in the coming year.

ISSCR 2016 packed house

Differentiation differentiates itself. From the talks I attended, the most striking change from past ISSCR meetings was the relatively large focus on differentiation. While there was still lots of discussion of potency of stem cells and inherent stem cell properties, there was much more emphasis on mechanisms of commitment and differentiation. How do cells properly exit the stem cell state to become the correct kind of progenitors and then terminally differentiated cells? At ISSCR 2016 one of the key stem cell trends was the big emphasis placed on answering this question. More focus on differentiation is valuable.

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Scientist in the garden: tomato crop builds, faces giant enemy

As regular readers of this blog know, one of my hobbies is gardening and I like to bring a scientific perspective to the garden. This year in my garden I’ve planted a whole bunch of tomatoes including unusual and fun varieties. Little did I know that a giant tomato enemy would arrive. More on that in a bit.

Below is a plate of the ones I picked today including the blue one Dark Galaxy and the funny pointy-tipped yellow cherry ones called Barry’s Crazy Clusters, which in both cases are from Wild Boar Farms, a local place known for creating amazing new tomatoes (@WildBoarFarms). Note that big Celebrity tomato on the right that weighed nearly a pound.

Paul's tomatoes

Returning from the big ISSCR stem cell meeting in SFO I found my vegetable garden doing pretty well despite the constant near-100 degree temps we’ve had in the Sacramento-Davis area for weeks. The heat has been nearly unrelenting and remarkably both on the way to and from San Francisco there were two brush fires going both directions that mucked up traffic. This doesn’t bode well for the fire season.

Giant tomato hornworm

My tomato plants looked a bit thirsty despite sprinklers and some watering by the family, but pretty good overall. However, while watering I did find one tall plant that had nearly all of its leaves missing right from the top.

My first thought was, “Oh, no, must be a giant tomato hornworm!” It didn’t take long to find the massive beast that had been gorging itself on this plant (see image above).

One of the most striking things about these caterpillars is their spine on their rear end and this guy’s was bright red. This particular monster was longer and wider than my pointer finger. No wonder that plant was half-stripped of its leaves.

Rather than kill it, we decided to capture and study this thing for a while. I don’t know if it will turn into a giant five-spotted hawk moth before we lose patience with having it in the house in a huge jar with tomato leaves for food.

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Fiona Watt excellent talk on epidermal stem cell plasticity #ISSCR2016

Yesterday at ISSCR 2016, Fiona Watt gave a great talk about plasticity of epidermal stem cells. As with my other #ISSCR2016 posts, this one is a stream of impressions, quotes, and key points. For my other blog posts from the meeting see here.

First she provided a nice overview of human skin architecture and regulation. The position of cells within this tissue directly impacts their fate and this is true of the stem cells as well. How do stem cells in the basal layer adopt specific fates as they commit and then differentiate?

Fiona Watt

Her team looked for surface markers that link to clonogenic potential of stem cells. The ability to form clonal colonies is an assay for the actual stem cells in the epidermis. They found specific markers that are elevated in human epidermal stem cells.

Different microenvironmental cues trigger differentiation via different signal transduction pathways, which includes cues such as micropatterned island versus soft, porous gel.

What regulates commitment?

They looked at gene expression in suspension (t-SNE statistical analysis of different time points). There was a poor correlation between mRNA and protein at 4h in suspension (adding my two cents–so studies like Affymetrix and RNA-Seq clearly do not always tell the whole story). Are there post-transcriptional/post-translational changes taking place?

A major finding is that protein dephosphorylation is a characteristic of commitment. Spike in phosphatase activity at the same time.

Phosphatase KD gave mixed results of more or fewer colonies depending on the phosphatase targeted. Thus, the balance of difference phosphatase activities will be central. Changes were apparent in differentiation and proliferation in a neat in vitro epidermis model (building epidermis on de-epidermalized skin). There are pro-commitment phosphatases that impact AP1 factors.

Some focus on DUSP10 (opposite effect of pro-commitment factors and they may antagonize). Why is commitment state transient?

Exit the niche, downregulation of MAPK, increase in pro-commitment phosphatases. DUSP10 makes commitment transient.

Open questions.

  • Do different external stimuli trigger a common commitment state?
  • Does cell position influence commitment?
  • Are different commitment states linked to different terminal differentiation outcomes?

I thought this was an outstanding talk, one of the best at the meeting.

Poll for #ISSCR2016 attendees: what’s your view of REGROW Act?