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Cosmic Science

Report lays out a road map for human gene editing

Experts on an international commission are saying it’s too early to tweak the human genome for future generations, but they’re also pointing to the first genetic targets to be tweaked.

The experts’ report, issued today, comes in response to the uproar that arose in 2018 over claims that Chinese researchers had edited the genomes of twin babies in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability to the HIV virus.

Those claims sparked a blizzard of questions about the ethics, legality and efficacy of the experiment. It also sparked efforts to lay down guidelines for the use of recently developed gene-editing tools such as CRISPR to make changes in the human genome that could be passed down to future generations.

In today’s report — prepared with the backing of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society — the 18-member commission says researchers will have to demonstrate that precise genomic changes can be made reliably without introducing unwanted changes. The commission also says no current technologies, including CRISPR, can satisfy that requirement.

Once the state of the art gets to that point, heritable human genome editing should initially be limited to the prevention of serious diseases that are caused by a single gene, the report says. Examples include cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease.

Even in those cases, gene-editing therapy should be reserved for cases where parents who have a known risk for passing on such a disease have virtually no other options.

“Any initial uses of HHGE [heritable human genome editing] should proceed incrementally and cautiously, and provide the most favorable balance of potential benefits and harms,” Rockefeller University President Richard Lifton, the panel’s co-chair, said in a news release.

Today’s report will feed into the work of a different advisory panel at the World Health Organization, which is drawing up recommendations for governance mechanism that would apply to heritable as well as non-heritable genome editing research and clinical uses.

Those recommendations are due to be issued later this year. It’ll be up to individual countries to incorporate the guidelines as they draw up gene-editing regulations. Today’s report calls for the creation of an independent International Scientific Advisory Panel to track developments in the gene-editing field, as well as an international body to provide further guidance on regulating the field.

Francis Collins, the longtime director of the National Institutes of Health, gave the report his thumbs-up in a tweet:

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Cosmic Science

ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.

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Cosmic Science

XPRIZE organizes $5M challenge for COVID-19 tests

The nonprofit XPRIZE foundation has assembled a high-powered coalition to take on a high-priority problem: developing high-quality screening tests for COVID-19 that are low-cost and easy to use with a fast turnaround time.

The $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition is the latest project from the folks who created multimillion-dollar contests for privately financed spaceships, super-efficient cars and real-life equivalents of Star Trek’s medical tricorders.

Among those voicing support for the testing development effort are:

  • OpenCovidScreen, a nonprofit group that numbers researchers from such institutions as the University of Washington and business leaders from such companies as Illumina among its advisers and collaborators. OpenCovidScreen’s partners include ThermoFisher Scientific, Google, Amazon and Ancestry.com. The group’s president and co-founder is Jeff Huber, a former Google executive and co-founder of Grail, a cancer detection startup.
  • A $50 million fund known as the COVID Apollo Project, backed by investors including RA Capital, Bain Capital, Perceptive Advisors, Redmile Group and Samsara Biocapital.
  • Healthcare companies including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, BlueCross / BlueShield of South Carolina and Cambia Health Solutions.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “seeing the breakthroughs that arise from this challenge and the countless lives that will be saved as a result.”

Teams can compete in one of four categories, focusing on at-home tests, point-of-care tests, distributed lab tests or high-throughput lab tests. They’ll be asked to develop new tests that produce results within 12 hours of collecting a sample, using minimally invasive procedures.

Winning teams will be required to deploy and conduct a minimum of 500 tests per week at a live testing site within 60 days, and have the potential to scale up their solutions to thousands of tests per week.

Cost of the test should be less than $15, including all materials, with avenues for reducing costs as production is scaled up.

Currently, the cost of COVID-19 testing can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on healthcare circumstances. What’s more, the turnaround time for test results can extend past a week, due to shortages in supplies and staffing.

“Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said. “XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable Covid-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again.”

Teams must register by Aug. 31, and the XPRIZE timeline calls for tests to be deployed in a pilot round that runs from Nov. 2, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021. Winners are to be announced by the end of next January, with scaled-up production planned during the months that follow.

The reaction to today’s announcement was mostly positive. “THIS is what we need right now,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a tweet.

However, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to have the final word on any tests that come out of the competition. And even without the contest, progress is being made on rapid-turnaround COVID-19 tests. There’s a chance that this XPRIZE will be rendered unnecessary before it reaches its climax. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Cosmic Science

Remember when? 18 years of Cosmic Log

Today marks the 18th anniversary of Cosmic Log’s founding as one of the first blogs in MSNBC’s lineup. Nowadays, everything on a news website is arguably a blog, but back then, it was a big deal, at least for the likes of NBC News.

Wired magazine took note of Cosmic Log and MSNBC’s four other “more-or-less daily blogs” in its September 2002 issue, under a headline that read “Big Media’s Me-Too Blogs.” The stable of bloggers was described as consisting of “marquee names Eric Alterman and Chris Matthews, plus staffers Michael Moran, Jan Herman and Alan Boyle.”

As of this year, all five of us have left MSNBC. Herman continues to post to his Straight Up blog at ArtsJournal, Moran is the CEO of Transformative Risk Assessment, Alterman is a columnist at The Nation, and Matthews has been through some interesting times.

Cosmic Log soldiers on: During the weeks ahead, I’m hoping to put the archives on an even keel ⁠— and revive some of the quantum fluctuations that added flair to the blog in years past.

In preparation for that, here’s an updated version of the Cosmic Log history quiz that’s been published periodically to mark the blog’s May 13 birthday. This time, there’s no prize for the winner — except for a free trip down memory lane:

Cosmic Log Quiz: 10 questions

1. Where did the name “Cosmic Log” come from? A space mission? A TV show? A comic book? Or did I just make it up?

2. Which “Star Trek” actor was interviewed for Cosmic Log? Nichelle Nichols? Leonard Nimoy? William Shatner? George Takei?

3. Which would-be celebrity astronaut was interviewed for Cosmic Log? Lance Bass? Mark Burnett? James Cameron? Victoria Principal?

4. Which Apollo astronaut was NOT interviewed for Cosmic Log? Buzz Aldrin? Alan Bean? Pete Conrad? Harrison Schmitt?

5. Which magician has been interviewed for Cosmic Log? The Amazing Randi? The Amazing Kreskin? David Copperfield? Penn Jillette?

6. Which medium/channel/psychic has been interviewed for Cosmic Log? Mary T. Browne? Theresa Caputo? Allison Dubois? JZ Knight?

7. Which TV show has been the subject of Cosmic Log postings? “American Idol”? “Dancing With the Stars”? “The X-Files”? All of the above?

8. What is the “CLUB Club”? A real-world hangout for Cosmic Log fans in Seattle back in the early days? A concept I proposed for an anti-theft device? A list of book recommendations? A members-only gallery of cosmic pictures?

9. What kind of celestial object got its name in part because of Cosmic Log? Asteroid? Comet? Crater? Mountain?

10. Who was the object named after? Douglas Adams? Alan Boyle? Stephen Hawking? Robert Heinlein?

⁠Cosmic Log Quiz: The answers

1. Cosmic Log’s name was inspired by a 40-year-old quote from a character in Weird Mystery Tales #1: “My name is Destiny, and it is my Fate to walk alone throughout eternity and observe the follies and mysteries of mankind, and to note them all in the cosmic log.” Among the rejected names: Quanta, Penultimate Questions and the Blog at the End of the Universe.

2. William Shatner was our guest for a Cosmic Log chat on Oct. 14, 2002.

3. Although Lance Bass was the subject of frequent Cosmic Log items in 2002, I never did talk with Lance himself. I did, however, chat with James Cameron a couple of times about his space aspirations.

4. I’ve had items in Cosmic Log about Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 12’s Alan Bean, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt and other astronauts from NASA’s glory days. I interviewed Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad before his death in 1999 for a story about his Universal Space Lines venture — but that was before Cosmic Log got started. So Pete Conrad is the answer to this one.

5. On June 7, 2002, The Amazing Kreskin was the focus of a Cosmic Log item about his UFO stunt in Nevada. (You’ll have to dig for that one.)

6. JZ Knight (who says she channels a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit named Ramtha) was the subject of an extended interview in 2010. I haven’t yet checked in with Theresa (“Long Island Medium”) Caputo or Allison Dubois of the “Medium” TV series, but I do stay in touch with my cousin Mary T. Browne, “the Wall Street psychic.”

7. All of the above: Who hasn’t written about “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “The X-Files”?

8. The CLUB Club is the “Cosmic Log Used Book Club.” We started up the club to highlight books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to become available at your local library or secondhand-book store. The club’s gone dormant in recent years, but the titles listed in the CLUB Club archive are still pretty good recommendations. Reviving the club is one of the items on my to-do list.

9 and 10. Way back on Aug. 21, 2003, I discussed the procedure for naming asteroids and solicited suggestions for folks who should have an asteroid named after them. Douglas Adams, the humorist behind the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, was one of the prospects mentioned — and I noticed that there was an asteroid out there that almost literally had his name on it. The space rock known provisionally as 2001 DA42 included the date of Adams’ death (2001), his initials (DA) and the answer to the ultimate question from the Hitchhiker’s Guide (42). Astronomer Brian Marsden, who headed up the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center at the time, thought it was a great suggestion and helped make it so in 2005. You can get the full story here.

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Cosmic Science

The research landscape in Seattle and beyond

Seattle skyline
A panoramic camera mounted on the spire atop Seattle’s Space Needle captures a view of the city skyline, looking southeast toward Mount Rainier. (Space Needle PanoCam Photo)

Looking for a wide-angle view of the Seattle area’s scientific landscape? Download a PowerPoint slide show that provides a sampling of research institutions in aerospace, biomedicine, computer science, global medicine and more. It’s an extended version of a presentation given at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Here’s a PDF version of the slideshow.