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Scientists crack the code of mystery DNA

Evolutionary DNA tree
It’s been 80 million years since our our evolutionary branch diverged from mice — so why do we share some fragments of DNA that are essentially unchanged? (Fred Hutch News Service Illustration / Kim Carney)

Why do some strings of genetic code remain virtually unchanged despite tens of millions of years of evolutionary divergence? A newly published study that takes advantage of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR has found that at least some of those DNA strings are essential to keep healthy cells growing and block the growth of tumor cells.

The research, published today in Nature Genetics, is the “first study finding large-scale importance of these highly conserved elements,” senior author Rob Bradley of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said in a news release.

Bradley and his colleagues say unraveling the mysteries of those ultra-conserved elements could lead to new avenues for cancer treatment.

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Chinese gene-editing scientist goes to prison

He Xiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who stirred up a global controversy last year when he said his experiment produced twin baby girls with gene-edited traits, has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $430,000 fine, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported today.

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Cyrus Biotech and CRISPR gene pioneers team up

Feng Zhang
MIT researcher Feng Zhang will be the principal investigator for the Broad Institute’s collaboration with Cyrus Biotechnology. (HHMI Photo)

Seattle-based Cyrus Biotechnology says it’ll collaborate with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard on ways to optimize CRISPR gene-editing techniques for use in developing novel human therapeutics.

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Human gene-editing experiment put on hold

He Jiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui addresses the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. (National Academies via Twitter)

The Chinese researcher behind a controversial experiment to produce gene-edited children took the stage at a Hong Kong conference to explain his work, and acknowledged that the international outcry has brought a halt to the experiment.

“The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation,” He Jiankui, a biomedical researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said today at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.

The university says He (pronounced “Heh”) has been on unpaid leave since January, and today Chinese news outlets reported that his lab on campus has been shut down and sealed off for investigation.

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Reports of gene-edited babies spawn investigations

CRISPR mechanism
CRISPR-Cas9 technology uses “molecular scissors” to cut and splice DNA. (UC-Berkeley Graphic)

Multiple investigations are being sought in the wake of reports that a Chinese laboratory facilitated the birth of twin girls whose genes had been edited to protect them against the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

The first-of-its-kind experiment, which took advantage of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, came to light in reports published late Sunday by MIT Technology Review and The Associated Press. The researcher in charge of the project, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, also published a series of videos explaining the gene-editing project.

There has been no outside confirmation of He’s claims, but geneticists and health policymakers say such claims raise grave ethical issues — including the prospect of creating designer babies, enhancing traits and even introducing exotic new traits.

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First gene-edited babies reportedly born in China

He Jiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

A Chinese researcher says his lab facilitated the first birth of gene-edited children — twin girls who are said to possess genetic alterations that could protect them from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“Two beautiful little Chinese girls, named Lulu and Nana, came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago. The girls are home now,” He Jiankui, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said in a YouTube video.

If confirmed, the report is certain to bring the ethical issues surrounding human genetic engineering into sharp focus, and could lead either to rapid developments in the technology or regulatory limits.

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Kavli Prizes run the gamut from genes to galaxies

CRISPR graphic
This computer-generated graphic shows a schematic representation of the molecular CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system. The Cas9 enzyme (orange) cuts the DNA (blue) in the location selected by the RNA (red). Image courtesy of Carlos Clarivan / Science Photo Library / NTB Scanpix via Kavli Prize)

Three inventors of the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 technique for editing DNA are among the recipients of this year’s Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientific breakthroughs in fields outside the sweet spots for Nobel Prizes.

Other Kavli laureates include three neuroscientists who trace the biological mechanisms behind hearing (and hearing loss), as well as an astrophysicist who has shed light on the chemical and physical processes in interstellar clouds.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced the winners today in Oslo, during a ceremony that was also live-streamed at the World Science Festival in New York.

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Gene editing fixes flaw linked to bad hearts

Embryo editing
This sequence of images shows the development of embryos after co-injection of a gene-correcting enzyme and sperm from a donor with a genetic mutation known to cause a type of heart disease known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. (OHSU Photo)

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University provided the details today on an experiment with human embryos that demonstrated how gene editing can repair a genetic flaw linked to heart disease.

The outlines of the experiment were reported last week, but the OHSU team held off on providing the details until today’s publication of the study in the journal Nature.

The team, led by OHSU senior researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov, took advantage of a technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, which uses RNA guide molecules and enzymes to make targeted cuts in the DNA molecules that contain the human genetic code. Revised code can then be inserted into the snipped DNA.

The Nature study revealed that the team was able to fix a genetic mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a common disease that can cause sudden heart failure and death.

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Oregon team edits genes in human embryos

Embryo and pipette
A pipette injects CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tools into a mouse embryo. Oregon researchers have reportedly conducted similar experiments using human embryos. (University of Utah Health Sciences Photo)

Chinese researchers crossed a threshold last year when they used CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tools to modify human embryos, and now Oregon researchers have reportedly crossed it as well.

report in MIT Technology Review suggests that the team at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland improved upon the results from China by modifying embryos earlier in their development.

OHSU confirmed that a study was in the works, but said there was nothing more to share at this time.

“Results of the peer-reviewed study are expected to be published soon in a scientific journal,” OHSU spokesman Erik Robinson said in an email to GeekWire.

Genetic experiments with embryos are controversial because they could involve changing the human genetic code in ways that can be passed along to a person’s progeny. That raises the prospect of creating subspecies of genetically modified humans with enhanced traits.

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Genetic code harnessed as digital circuitry

Biologically based circuit NOR gate
An artist’s conception shows connections between biologically based CRISPR-dCas9 NOR gates. (University of Washington Graphic)

Researchers from the University of Washington have taken advantage of synthetic biology to turn yeast cells into building blocks for digital information processing.

The experiment, described today in Nature Communications, turned the cells’ genetic code into NOR logic gates suitable for biologically based circuitry.

In digital circuitry that deals with ones and zeros, a NOR gate will produce a “1” output only if both inputs are “0.” To adapt yeast cells for digital processing, the UW team used a gene-editing method called CRISPR-Cas9 to replicate the interactions of ones and zeros with DNA and RNA molecules.

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