When Sean Parker was young, he cofounded Napster and changed the way we listen to music. In his twenties, he helped jump-start Facebook and changed the way we interact with each other. Now, at age 38, he’s set on changing something else: the way we treat disease. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which he founded in 2016, has dedicated $250 million toward using new technologies like Crispr to teach the human body to vanquish cancer. Alex Marson is a scientist building the tools to do just that. His research at UC San Francisco and the Parker Institute rejiggers the DNA of T cells—your immune system’s sentinels—to better recognize and attack malignant mutineers. Parker and Marson sat down to talk about Crispr, genome editing, and the most exciting coding language today: DNA. —Megan Molteni
ABOUT TEN YEARS ago, British veterinarians discovered an unlucky family of King Charles Spaniels whose male pups sometimes came down with a mysterious set of maladies before their first birthday. They grew clumsy and weak, and they often choked on their own tongues. To blame was a mutation on their X chromosomes, in a gene that codes for a shock-absorbing muscle protein called dystrophin. When researchers at the Royal Veterinary College realized the puppers had a canine version of the most common fatal genetic disease in children—Duchenne muscular dystrophy—they began breeding the sick spaniels with beagles to start a canine colony in the hopes of one day finding a cure.
Today, scientists report they’ve halted the progression of the disease in some of those doggy descendants using the gene editing tool known as Crispr.
The world’s largest food company is experimenting with people’s DNA to build and sell personalized nutrition plans that, it says, will extend lifespans and keep people healthy.
Nestlé is rolling out these new products in Japan first. Some 100,000 people are taking part in a company program there that gives consumers a kit to collect their DNA at home. The program also encourages them to use an app to post pictures of what they’re eating. Nestlé then recommends dietary changes and supplies specialized supplements that can be sprinkled on or mixed into a variety of food products, including teas, according to Bloomberg.
Scientists have used genetically engineered bacteria to recreate a masterpiece at a microscopic scale. By engineering E. coli bacteria to respond to light, they’ve guided the bacteria like tiny drones toward patterns that depict Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s not artistic recognition they’re after. Rather, the researchers want to show that these engineered organisms may someday be used as “microbricks” and living propellors.
A pioneer of the Crispr gene-editing technology that’s taken Wall Street by storm says the field is probably five to 10 years away from having an approved therapy for patients.
Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who runs the Doudna Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, says major questions remain about the safety and effectiveness of experimental therapies that aim to disrupt or repair defective genes. But she’s optimistic about their prospects.
Recently born clones share an incubator.
Barbra Streisand is not alone. At a South Korean laboratory, a once-disgraced doctor is replicating hundreds of deceased pets for the rich and famous. It’s made for more than a few questions of bioethics.
The surgeon is a showman. Scrubbed in and surrounded by his surgical team, a lavalier mike clipped to his mask, he gestures broadly as he describes the C-section he is about to perform to a handful of rapt students watching from behind a plexiglass wall. Still narrating, he steps over to a steel operating table where the expectant mother is stretched out, fully anesthetized. All but her lower stomach is discreetly covered by a crisp green cloth. The surgeon makes a quick incision in her belly. His assistants tug gingerly on clamps that pull back the flaps of tissue on either side of the cut. The surgeon slips two gloved fingers inside the widening hole, then his entire hand. An EKG monitor shows the mother’s heart beating in steady pulses.
An analysis of transformed cocoons. Morphology of the WT-1, FibH+/-, FibH-/-, WT-2, MaSp1+/-, and MaSp1+/+ cocoons. Scale bar represents 1 cm. Credit: Jun Xu
A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in China has succeeded in using a gene editing technique to get silkworms to produce spider silk. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes the technique they used and the quality of the silk produced.
Designer babies are on the horizon after an influential group of scientists concluded that it could be ‘morally permissible’ to genetically engineer human embryos.
In a new report which opens the door to a change in the law, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said that DNA editing could become an option for parents wanting to ‘influence the genetic characteristics of their child.’
Although it would be largely used to cure devastating genetic illnesses, or predispositions to cancers and dementia, the experts said they were not ruling out cosmetic uses such as making tweaks to increase height or changing eye or hair colour, if it would make a child more successful.
Maverick Coltrin was diagnosed with pyridoxine-dependent epilepsy shortly after he was born. He now gets checkups to make sure his seizures are under control and that he’s still healthy. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Maverick Coltrin entered the world a seemingly healthy 8-pound boy. But within a week, he was having seizures that doctors could neither explain nor control. They warned that he would probably die within a few months.
“I remember my world just came crashing down,” said his mother, Kara Coltrin, 24.
After spending nearly a year aboard the International Space Station, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in 2016—only to find that his DNA had changed.
The gecko’s remarkable ability to regenerate its tail in the space of a month could help scientists figure out how to heal spine injuries in humans, and it’s all down to the regenerative ability of stem cells.
When biologists synthesize DNA, they take pains not to create or spread a dangerous stretch of genetic code that could be used to create a toxin or, worse, an infectious disease. But one group of biohackers has demonstrated how DNA can carry a less expected threat—one designed to infect not humans nor animals but computers.