Recap of BEINGS 2015 Meeting by Aaron Levine: Shaping Future of Cellular Biotech

Aaron Levine
Associate Professor, School of Public Policy
Georgia Tech
Aaron Levine

Aaron Levine

Last week I attended Biotech & the Ethical Imagination (BEINGS 2015), the summit I previewed on this blog back in early May. It many ways the summit lived up to its lofty ambitions. Steven Pinker kicked off the event by emphasizing the power and importance of biomedical research, noting that almost everyone is affected by disease and imploring the bioethics community to “stay out of the way.” Margaret Atwood followed Pinker noting both the excitement of modern biotech and the perils of the enterprise. She broadened the scope of the discussion to include environmental concerns, arguing that if we don’t address pressing environmental issues, such as climate change, there would be little reason to worry about continuing to advance human health. Both Pinker and Atwood were part of the panel considering the appropriate aspirations for the biotechnological enterprise and gave the assembled delegates plenty of food for thought.beings-logo

The meeting alternated these short TED-style talks with panel discussions addressing five major topics: (1) Aspirations for Biotechnology, (2) Alien Organisms and New Identities, (3) Bioerror and Bioterror, (4) Ownership, and (5) Donorship. The hope was to raise key issues for the delegates to consider as they begin the difficult process of drafting ethical principles and policy guidelines for the future of cellular biotechnology.

The meeting has already generated substantial discussion (see here, here, here, here and here for example) and I won’t try to review it all here. Rather, I’d like to highlight a few of the major themes I took away from the summit:

(1) Global Nature of Biotech. Biotechnology is truly a global enterprise with important advances coming from scientists working in many different countries. This reality poses important challenges for biotech policy as substantial heterogeneity exists in country-level regulatory approaches toward the advancement of bioscience.

(2) Importance of money. Biotechnology in the 21st century is driven by money. Money drives the questions that are studied (and those that are ignored). Raising money (typically through grants) is central to the careers of many research scientists, particularly in the life sciences. Corporate agendas and the pursuit of profits also shape research in myriad ways from the focus on specific research questions to the acquisition of research materials to the sharing (or lack thereof) of research results.

(3) Rapid Pace of Advance. Biotechnology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, which offers both hope for the future and poses substantial challenges for the policy and ethics community. In short, it’s important not just to oversee past science, but to prepare for future advances, even if these are uncertain and unpredictable.

None of these themes is novel but each one points to important challenges in shaping the future of cellular biotechnology. I am working along with a team of 15 or so delegates to draft principles and guidelines related to the broad topic of “donorship” – the provision of biological materials for cellular biotechnology. We are early in our deliberations thinking through what works and doesn’t work at the current time and how donation should be construed and overseen as the field advances. As we continue these deliberations, I hope we can develop useful guidelines that consider the context of the rapidly advancing, global and money-driven biotechnological enterprise. Such a task will be challenging, but hopefully rewarding as well, both for the delegates who are spending their summer voluntarily contributing to the effort and for the broader biotech community.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas on these themes in general and their implications for the future of cellular biotechnology as well as your thoughts on the issues of provision of biological materials for research purposes.

White House supports moratorium on human genetic modification

John_HoldrenThe Obama Administration today weighed in on human germline genetic modification via a note from John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The White House indicated support for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) plans to convene an international meeting on human germline genetic modification including CRISPR-Cas9 technology:

“The White House applauds NAS and NAM for convening this dialogue and fully supports a robust review of the ethical issues associated with using gene-editing technology to alter the human germline. The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”

That last sentence is a very strong statement supportive of a moratorium.

The note also mentions the recent Chinese report on editing of human embryos, saying:

“Research along these lines raises serious and urgent questions about the potential implications for clinical applications that could lead to genetically altered humans. The full implications of such a step could not be known until a number of generations had inherited the genetic changes made — and choices made in one country could affect all of us.”

Overall, I would say this is a positive step for the White House in this increasingly important area of science and medicine.

Big article in SacBee on GMO battle

SacBee GMO


The local paper, the Sacramento Bee (SacBee) just ran a piece on Monday on the GMO controversy.

Few places are more in the thick of it than right here in Davis, CA and the Sacramento region more generally. Some of the earliest GMO plants were created right here in Davis including the Flavr Savr tomato. Monsanto also has a big presence here.

Over the years, anti-GMO protestors regularly protest the company in this area. Monsanto moved its local presence from Davis to nearby Woodland, CA, but the protests continue. There’s a notable tension in this area because on the one hand people here value organic foods and some do have concerns on GMOs, but on the other hand it is a university town full of scientists and more specifically probably thousands of plant scientists. Note that I’m not a plant scientist myself.

There is a more general divide nationally mentioned in the article on how scientists see GMOs versus the general public;

A recent Pew survey found that while 88 percent of scientists say GMO foods are safe to eat, 57 percent of Americans believe they are unsafe.”

How do you feel about eating GMO foods? What did you think of the SacBee piece?

CRISPR-y critters: Cute pics of Cas9 gene edited animals

As CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology has advanced in the last few years, the number of genetically modified animals made with this system has steadily increased. Some are very interesting and useful for science.

At the same time especially when they are little, they can be very cute.


A nickname is going around for these CRISPR’d animals: CRISPR-y critters.

CRISPR pigsIt turns out that there used be a breakfast cereal called Crispy Critters. It had a very odd looking mascot named Crispy with fuzzy antennae and a voice like Jimmy Durante.

Ironically enough this cereal had some unusual animals in there including some that one might almost imagine were genetically modified. RFP bunny? CFP camel?

The mascot Crispy sure looks like some kind of GMO as well.

So what are the real and of course cutest CRISPR-y critters out there currently?

There are CRISPR-Cas9 edited pigs (see piglets the pic above) and these little guys have the bonus of also being clones.

Piglets are so cute!

Then we have the strange but hilarious, satirical cartoon of CRISPR below. It is illustrated with a focus on pork products.CRISPR bacon

The bacon is the DNA in question being targeted by the Cas9 and gRNA. I wish they had made the Cas9 into a knife though to go with the theme better.

This one gives a whole another somewhat disturbing twist to the crisp name here giving the involvement of potentially crispy bacon. Rhesus CRISPR

Efforts are also underway to make hornless cattle via CRISPR-Cas9 technology. This would actually be very significant because currently the horns have to be cut off apparently, which is pretty terrible.

CRISPR wormThen there are CRISPR’d primates including these super cute GM Rhesus monkeys above.

A CRISPR’d worm may not be seen as particularly cute by many, but I think it looks very cool nonetheless.

It still counts as a CRISPR-y critter too.

What else is out there?

There are CRISPR-y flies, rats, fish, and much much more including bunnies.CRISPR mouse

The little mousling (yeah, probably not the correct term, but sounds cute) shown below is adorable.

It is a founder from a CRISPR approach at the UC Irvine Transgenic Mouse Facility.

Talk about cute!

These animals have been made for scientific research to advance knowledge of development and disease. There are other possible reasons to make CRISPR-y critters too.

Given the advent and sale of the first GMO pets in the form of Glofish (not made with CRISPR), we can expect cute CRISPR-y critters to be coming to our homes in the future as pets.

What are your favorite CRISPR-y critters?

DIY human ‘upgrades’ via biohacking

Heritable human genetic modification has been the topic of the year so far, but another trend is edgy and interesting: non-heritable, but cutting edge forms of human modification that in some ways fall into the class of biohacking.


Biohackers are into do-it-yourself (DIY) forms of biology including self-modification.

Sure, people have been modifying themselves for thousands of years. Tattoos, hair changes, cosmetic surgery, tooth fillings and crowns, pacemakers and other medical implants. However, changing up one’s body has gone high-tech and DIY to include integration of the human body with computer chips for example (see image at right from here).

Meet Seth Wahle, who has an implant in his hand that allows him to hack your iPhone just by holding it. Wahle is a biohacker. According to a fun read piece by Rose Eveleth:

Wahle’s implant is an RFID chip, a tiny device that can hold small amounts of data and communicate with devices nearby.

The US military is very interested in high-tech implants of this kind for their soldiers, but biohackers bring it out into the wide world.

Some biohackers want to become cyborgs. See the above video, which is somewhat mind-boggling.

Biohacking can also involve garage-based or rented lab space-based biological experiments not involving oneself. Biohacking also intersects with the transhumanism movement, which seeks to promote the transcendence of humanity to a new, better plane where we are beyond human. Another element of transhumanism is self-editing where you change-up your own genetics via a kind of gene therapy.

I find biohacking to be very cool, but it also raises some possibly complicated ethical questions.

For example, if a friend were to make a type of mosquito in her garage that has firefly genes to make them glow in the dark so we can see them easier (before one bites us), and that friend releases (or there is accidental release of) the new type of mosquitos in fertile forms into the wild without any kind of regulatory approval, community notification, etc., what might happen?

Or she makes a fertile glow in the dark type of fish, which gets into a local stream or glowing birds fly out into the backyard trees?

If you think this kind of stuff couldn’t happen, you are mistaken.